By ASHA ALBUQUERQUE ’14
Vannessa Greenleaf ’14 has brought a rustic Appalachian mountain depiction of “Romeo and Juliet” to Wellesley, complete with southern charm, sheriffs and suspenders. In the Shakespeare Society’s interpretation of the ever-popular hormone-ridden tragedy, the young Montagues and Capulets face off with daggers, rifles and shotguns. Greenleaf, who directs the play, drew inspiration from the Hatfield and McCoy feud in 19th century West Virginia.
The play begins with all the characters on stage, austere and stony-faced in a colonial version of the mass mug-shot, as the friar, Erin Nealer ’15, recites the infamous prologue, which begins: “Two households both alike in dignity…” Nealer’s friar is haunted by the fate that has yet to befall the two young lovers, and he personifies the horrors of the feud. It soon becomes clear that these families are rather far from dignity as violent carousing steals the scene—“for never was a tale of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
For Greenleaf, the greatest challenge in bringing “Romeo and Juliet” to life was the Appalachian accents. But never fear: the Montagues and the Capulets weave words and spin elaborate puns as if they were born in the mountains. According to Greenleaf, the Appalachian accent is closest to Shakespeare’s dialect: The community preserved the accent after immigrating to the Americas. The setting thus provides the impetus for Romeo and Juliet to finally speak the way Shakespeare originally envisioned them.
Greenleaf infuses the play with both the grit and glories of early American life as a fiddler belts out old folk songs and Romeo and Juliet cross paths at a square dance. Katie Piner ’16 as Juliet plays an ethereal, witty and smitten young farm-girl, who prioritizes her love over the families’ feud. Piner’s portrayal of Juliet adds both depth and dimensionality to the role.
“I was worried initially playing Juliet as there are a lot of stereotypes about her as dumb and someone who things just happen to,” Piner said. “I want to show that she’s stronger than people give her credit for and that she acts as an agent in her own fate.”
Piner definitely succeeds in the role. In contrast to Emma Page ’16 as Romeo, who comes across as a love-sick, frivolous cloud-walker, Juliet is much more pragmatic and intelligent. She becomes the focal point of the infamous balcony scene and takes center stage, literally upstaging Romeo.
Although Juliet and Romeo’s love happens instantaneously, one can clearly feel the depth of their affections. The actors imbue their love with the idealistic erasure of adolescence: Juliet and Romeo see no flaws in each other, and the only threat to their love is the irrational rage of their elders. For a generation that has grown up with “Twilight” and the fairytale romance of Will and Kate, perhaps Romeo and Juliet are not so far from reality.
The costume-designers and makeup artists also contribute to a very compelling portrayal of the Appalachians.
The Shakespeare Society excels at blurring, transforming and shifting all preconceived conceptions of gender. Katie Clark ’14 as Mercutio steals the stage as the cocky farmer frat-boy who draws giggles and lovestruck eyes from audience members as they appreciate this particularly fine rendition of the masculine visage.
Greenleaf sought to break down the divide between the audience and the performance. In contrast to plays that build a fourth wall and act as though no audience is there, the actors frequently look directly at the audience.
“I don’t believe in the fourth wall and never will,” Greenleaf said. “I wanted to have the audience feel as if they were not adjacent to the stage but a part of it and to feel as much a part of the world of the play as the actors are.”
Greenleaf makes use of the entire theatre, and characters often enter or exit through the audience. Such staging demands a greater level of identification with the characters and their mindsets. The audience becomes Romeo as he emerges from the crowd and shares his love for Juliet, heralding her as the sun of his life. Then Romeo enters the stage and we become Juliet, inches away from the face of heaven.
One cannot help but hope that this couple, doomed from the start, might find their happily ever after. Alas, we are forced to bear witness as these hormonal angst-crazed kids reveal themselves to be the most irrational beings in a cold and gritty world. With their Southern twang-tinged sonneteering, they craft a world of fancy and fairytale, where the feud matters not. A cruel twist of fate and miscommunication parts them from one world, but perhaps we can imagine them finally finding immortal love in the next.
Greenleaf excels at demonstrating that the world of the feud and the world of Romeo and Juliet’s love cannot co-exist. Her one suggestion for Wellesley students to take away is that, in the end, the story is not just about Romeo and Juliet’s romance but also about how the Montagues and Capulets are so consumed by hate that they cannot understand how their children have become the victims of their rage.
The real tragedy in this heartwarming depiction is the transience of the Shakers and the lovers they play. The story shall live on forever more, but Piner’s Juliet will breathe her last breath on Nov. 24. One day, each and every one of these Tony-worthy actors will leave Wellesley forever. But until that day comes, be sure to fix this breathtaking love affair in your memory and partake in the privilege of seeing the greatest story ever told.