It is just coincidence that Hartford Stage scheduled previews for their new production of “Romeo and Juliet” to begin over Valentine’s Day weekend. While many regard the frequently produced Shakespeare classic to be the pinnacle of tragically romantic love stories, Hartford Stage’s Artistic Director and the director of this production, Darko Tresnjak, indicated that “Romeo and Juliet” is much, much more. “It’s really a very complicated play,” he explained in a recent telephone interview. “It’s a difficult play to pull off.”
Which is why, remarkably, that this production of “Romeo and Juliet” that officially opens this coming Friday, February 19, at Hartford Stage, is Tresnjak’s first time staging the work. “Certain plays speak to me at certain times during my life more than at other times,” he stated, “and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ never really spoke to me until this point in my life.”
Of course, Tresnjak has never shied away from directing Shakespeare. Recent years have seen him helming such Shakespeare titles as “Macbeth,” “Hamlet” and “Twelfth Night” at Hartford Stage, among the 20 Shakespeare plays he has tackled throughout his career. If you include the operas based on Shakespeare that he has directed in recent years, that number grows to 25 directorial efforts related to the Bard. Tresnjak is scheduled to direct a new production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” starring tenor Placido Domingo for the LA Opera this coming fall.
Tresnjak’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” has received some notice once the casting was announced for the highly visible diversity of his players. This is not, he cautions, a production similar to director David Levaux’s staging of the play on Broadway several years ago with the actor Orlando Bloom. That production also received notice for its diverse casting, but Levaux used white actors to play the Montagues and their followers, while black actors played the Capulets. Tresnjak indicates that the diversity in his production results simply from casting the best possible actors for the specific parts.
As he began imagining his version of “Romeo and Juliet,” Tresnjak recalled many of the actors he had worked with previously here in Hartford, at the Old Globe in San Diego and in other productions around the country. For example, Kaliswa Brewster, who he worked with in “Macbeth” and in the Hartford Stage-Hartford Symphony production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” came to mind quickly as the ideal Juliet. Similarly, he had actress Kandis Chappell in mind for the role of the Nurse, who, he reported, has played every great Shakespeare role during her tenure at the Old Globe.
At the same time, he auditioned any number of actors unfamiliar to him for many of the parts, which is how he settled upon Chris Ghaffari, a third year graduate student at the Yale School of Drama with credits with Shakespeare on the Sound and New York’s Shakespeare in the Park, to be the Romeo.
“As for race,” he stressed, “we have not talked about race in the rehearsal room. Some people may want to leap to the wrong conclusion, but there is no racial component here.”
Tresnjak has also taken an interesting approach to his specific setting for the play, ultimately settling upon the post-World War II period of Italian neo-realistic cinema, channeling the work of auteurs like Vittoria de Sica, Lucino Visconti, and a little Pier Paulo Pasolini. A notable influence, he related, was Roberto Rosselini’s “Open City,” with its mix of severe post-war damage amid the Italianate architecture. As he has done with “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” previously at Hartford Stage, Tresnjak is also serving as set designer for this production, which not allows him to design toward his particular vision, but also, he said, “gives me pleasure, as I can work on the set design on my own,” away from the ongoing questions and details he must attend to while in his role as director.
With his setting and Ilona Somogyi’s costumes conveying the influence of such films as “The Bicycle Thief” or “Mamma Roma,” Tresnjak extended that concept into his casting as well. He knew, for example, that he needed an Anna Magnani type for one of the characters, and had a specific actress in mind, “a wonderful Sicilian actress,” he said, Celeste Ciulla, who he knew from the Old Globe and worked with last year on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” who plays Lady Capulet.
The director himself recently celebrated his 50th birthday, which may have contributed to his readiness to approach “Romeo and Juliet.” The landmark event did give him pause, he explained, noting that “it’s amazing that one day you are an up-and-coming emerging artist and then, all of a sudden, you find yourself an established, serious artist.”
He revealed that is fascinated by a number of aspects of “Romeo and Juliet,” explaining that Shakespeare never explains the nature of the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, which has essentially polarized the entire city of Verona into one camp or the other. With Shakespeare being so non-specific, Tresnjak believes, “the play could take place anywhere in the world where people are fighting,” with even contemporary relevance to the divisions in American society today.
He has also noticed how the entire older generation in “Romeo and Juliet” fail the play’s young people. Montague’s relationship with his son Romeo is conducted primarily through servants and messengers while Lady Capulet relies on the Nurse to provide the intimate support and education that Juliet needs.
The director sees the play as an indictment of the inability of parents to communicate with their children, but also sees something lacking in the advice given to the young people by the Nurse and Friar Laurence, who both do not fully consider the implications of their suggestions. “The entire older generation,” Tresnjak added, “does not have a strong moral compass,” often leaving the young people to act in the dark.
By not being rushed into staging “Romeo and Juliet” earlier in his career, Tresnjak hopes that with the benefit of time, he’s been able to create a “Romeo and Juliet” that will not only speak to him, but to Hartford Stage audiences of all ages.
“Romeo and Juliet” plays through March 20 at Hartford Stage. For information and tickets, call the Hartford Stage Box Office at 860.527.5151 or visit the theatre’s website at www.hartfordstage.org.