Shakespeare, interactive

Passion is meant to be experienced, not observed. It’s one thing to passively watch such an emotion overtake a pair of lovers, but to place oneself in such a setting as to actually feel the excitement, devotion and eventual anguish of Romeo and Juliet bares a deeper impact on the soul.

Though this tale has been exhausted through high school English classes, movies and countless other mediums, the British International Theatre Program (BRIT) and USF’s School of Theatre and Dance provide a more intimate, humorous take on one of Shakespeare’s more famous plays.

Delicate notes plucked from a minstrel’s lyre filled the air of Theatre II as the audience found their seats, creating a permeating atmosphere of a romantic era long gone. Meanwhile, simulated candlelit chandeliers hung from the ceiling, paired with soft blue and purple lights that beamed directly on the audience, extending the atmosphere of the play from the stage to their laps. There is no raised platform for the actors to perform; instead, the audience was one with the action as it transpired.

“The unique experience of having everyone in the same light has seemed to create a bond between audience and actor that makes beautiful sense of those many moments in Shakespeare’s plays where a character will suddenly turn to the audience and draw them into their world, whether with a single line or a soliloquy,” BRIT guest Director Tamara Harvey said during the program’s preface.

In various scenes, actors bounded down the aisles or even hid among the audience, furthering the sense that they aren’t acting in the play, but rather caught in the midst of its battles and celebrations. During the infamous balcony scene, Romeo (junior theater performance major Phillip Gulley) turned to audience members to remark on Juliet’s (senior performance major Aisha Duran) beauty. He later evades Benvolio (senior theater performance major Jonathon Cho) and Mercutio (junior Reginald Kent Robinson Jr.) by ducking behind other attendees. These interactive moments prevented the audience from becoming bored bystanders in the re-creation of a familiar storyline.

The illusion of being part of the play didn’t end during the intermission (as no formal intermission announcement was made). The characters simply left, and bells chimed to warn of their return. Having an intermission would have torn the audience away from the unfolding drama and set it firmly as an observing third party, thus losing the total interactive effect of the play’s vibrant display of emotions.

Another aspect that kept this rendition surprisingly fresh was the actors’ lighthearted take on their characters. Gulley’s mixture of bumbling antics and raw emotions as an unsure adolescent steadfastly in love replaced the stiff stoicism commonly found in Romeo’s character, making him more relatable to an audience familiar with the dating jitters and the weight of making major decisions.

Though it can be hard at times to fully grasp some of Shakespeare’s quick banter in iambic pentameter, Duran (Juliet) effectively relied on varied facial expressions and clear infliction so that not a single quip was lost. Her chemistry with Gulley was undeniable, and when in scenes together the pair seemed to see only each other.

“It’s very hard to find a Romeo and Juliet who are good enough to carry the weight of the play but are also young enough, and I would be happy to have these two as my Romeo and Juliet anywhere,” Harvey told the St. Petersburg Times.

As far as comedy goes, however, senior theater arts major Gi Sung stole the show as Juliet’s nurse. With her near-toothless grin and incessant rambling punctuated by screeching yells, Sung exaggerated this character’s dim-witted demeanor, keeping the play from becoming too dark.

The cast as a whole seamlessly interacted with one another without ever leaving character. In doing so, they were successful in maintaining their connection with the audience.

Just as suddenly as the actors dashed down audience aisles as the play began, the final lines were spoken. After pausing a moment to let their impact set in, they slowly stood together and began to dance and bow before the audience, ending the play as quickly and jovially as they had begun it. It’s during this pause before the dance that the house lights brightened and the audience broke into applause, as they suddenly realized they were sitting in plastic, cushioned chairs in Theatre II, not standing in Verona, reveling in the tragic fates of Juliet and Romeo.

Since its first play at USF in 1991, BRIT has served as a way to expose USF students to British Classical Theater by inviting accomplished British directors, choreographers, actors and vocal coaches to become guest artists for their annual on-campus production. This year’s guests include Harvey, as well as choreographer Sian Williams and voice coach Yolanda Vasquez.

Romeo and Juliet will be playing in Theatre II, today through Saturday at 8 p.m., with additional performances at 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for USF students and seniors.