Actor,director, choreographer

Theater department to put on Shakespeare with a twist

Issue date: 10/9/03 Section: Arts

"Romeo and Juliet," the University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater department's season opener, is set in the future.  But not too far. Only about a day or so.

Virginia Smith, a UNL assistant theater professor and the play's director, has fused William Shakespeare's classic tale of love and strife with modern relevance.  The fusion of past and present is most apparent in costume and set design, Smith said.  

Most of the cast members, who are all UNL undergraduate students, wear contemporary clothing like jeans and sandals.  What Smith and costume designer Mandy Eilers have done, however, is add in transparent Elizabethan influences.  "There's always the ghost of the Renaissance in any Shakespeare play you do," Smith said.  "Some of the women wear sheer hoop skirts over modern business skirts," said Chad Brown, a senior theater major, while several of the men wear English-style pantaloons over their jeans.  Brown, who plays Romeo, added that the use of color was also prevalent in the play.  Juliet's family, the Capulets, wear red, while Romeo's family, the Montagues, wear blue, further drawing attention to the families' quarrel.

As the play takes place, the Renaissance features are gradually removed, Smith said.  The set, designed by graduate student Adam Mendelson, also corresponds with the feeling of "yesterday meets today."  "The set shows Verona in three stages of construction," Brown said, "or, deconstruction."  Scaffolding, scattered marble pillars and crumbling structures give the sensation of a city under construction, Smith said.  The set is large and very open, she said, and incorporated two different levels.  Behind the eight-foot upper level, the space that would typically be concealed by a black curtain is left empty, Brown said.  This allows the audience to see the stage's back wall, as well as some of the ropes used to control the curtains.  This, of course, is another feature of the set's "under construction" feel.  "It's a great way of utilizing the space," Brown said. "And it looks pretty amazing."

As a throwback to the original version of "Romeo and Juliet," Smith decided to use daggers and rapiers (narrow, two-edged swords) instead of modern weapons.  Theater professor Harris Smith and student assistant Kira Schlitt choreographed all the action scenes.  All theater students take courses in physical combat, Smith said, so sword fighting was relatively familiar to the cast members.  Both Brown and Smith said the actors had been having fun with the medieval approach to the fight scenes.  "Nobody's gotten hurt yet," Smith said.  Brown said all the action scenes were reviewed prior to each rehearsal.  "We always need to get our bodies warmed up," Brown said.  

In addition to the combat experience, many cast members have experience with Shakespeare as well, Smith said.  "About 75 percent of the cast has done a Shakespeare work before," she said.  Despite this, Smith encouraged the actors, whose roles were cast last spring, to spend the summer preparing their characters.  "I wanted them to look up words and pronunciations they didn't know," Smith said.  So after nearly four months of personal studying and five weeks of rehearsals, Brown said the cast was excited to put on a great show.

"We're ready to have an audience," he said.

Article 2 

UNL theatre stages variety of plays


Six plays will be shown this semester on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, three of them University Theatre productions and three of them Theatrix productions.

The upcoming productions will be much like previous lineups in the sense that variety will be served up by the theater department.

"We want our students to experience some Shakespeare or other classical work, some comedy and some drama, some contemporary work, some musical work, etc.," said Julie Hagemeier, general manager of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's theatre department and the Nebraska Repertory Theatre.

"We would be doing our students a disservice if we did all contemporary comedies, for example, or all Shakespeare, for that matter," she said.

The semester's first production is an updated "Romeo and Juliet."

Mandy Eilers, a graduate student in the theatre department, is this production's set designer. In a nutshell, she's responsible for the collaboration of ideas between set, light and sound designers.

She then makes sketches of costumes, shows them to the director, shops for fabric and makes sure the costumes are made.

Eilers alluded to a unique costume design for "Romeo and Juliet" that involves silhouettes and a reliance on lights for a combination of both modern and Elizabethan elements.

This idea is still awaiting approval, but Eilers described those above her, most notably the play's director, Virginia Smith, as being willing to listen to the ideas.

Also appearing on UNL's main stage this semester will be "The Boys Next Door," a story of four mentally handicapped men who reside together and deal with personal struggles.

"A Flea In Her Ear" is about a young woman who suspects that her husband is cheating on her and the comedy of errors that ensues.

UNL also has a second stage in the Temple Building where Theatrix productions are shown to the public.

"Theatrix was created to allow students the opportunity to do work that is more on the cutting edge -- work that would probably not appear on the main stage for financial reasons," Hagemeier said.

"Theatrix often allows students to take more chances."

The Theatrix stage is where students will have the chance to see original works from UNL playwrights as well as published scripts.

The first Theatrix production will be "Standing By," a story of life's lessons for two young travelers. The second production is a story of sex and its effects on the lives of five men and five women in "The Blue Room."

Finally, "The Real Thing" is a two-time Tony Award winner, highlighting the clash between art and ideals for a playwright and his actress wife.

Having fellow students involved in the creation of these productions increases the intrigue -- not to mention there are real live actors moving, speaking and reacting to the audience, for those who have become bored with movies about race cars and charlatan television realities.

Hagemeier described the stage as a vital alternative to television.

"Just as I would not want to categorize all theater into one artistic category, I would not want to do that for television or film either," she said.

"In the theater, the audience laughs, or doesn't, cries, applauds, etc. And that energy, that response, has a profound effect on how the actors perform.

"The audience of a television program or a film cannot affect the way the performance will be presented because the actors have no way to connect with them."

Tickets for Theatrix productions are $5 and available only at the door.

Tickets for University Theatre productions go on sale Sept. 2 and are $10 for students. They may be obtained by contacting the Lied Center Box Office at 472-4747 or walk-up at 301 N. 12th Monday through Friday, 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.