For Both are Infinite: Chautauqua’s ‘Romeo & Juliet Project’ makes world premiere

Brian Smith | Staff PhotographerCrew members prepare the scenery and lights for The Romeo & Juliet Project in the Amphitheater during the early morning hours Thursday.

Brian Smith | Staff Photographer

Crew members prepare the scenery and lights for The Romeo & Juliet Project in the Amphitheater during the early morning hours Thursday.

Will the real Romeo and Juliet please stand up?

In addition to the three pairs of star-crossed lovers, The Romeo & Juliet Project will also feature three Tybalts, two Mercutios, two Capulets and so on, as this season’s intense buzz about the Bard comes to fruition at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater.

The first-ever original Chautauqua inter-arts collaboration, the joyful headache that has had the various artistic departments working overtime this season, has led to a massive overhaul of William Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.

The collaboration mashes together the students and professionals from the Institution’s various art programs. Chautauqua Theater Company, Chautauqua Opera Company,  Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, Chautauqua Dance, North Carolina Dance Theatre and the School of Music have all contributed, leading to three — dancing, singing and acting — versions of the famed duo.

“Instead of having one performer as a triple threat, which would be another way to do it … having the consciousness of three different presences made sense to me,” said Vivienne Benesch, director of The Romeo & Juliet Project and CTC artistic director. “It was a feeling of character, and different parts of their character being expressed in different forms.”

Having three sets of Romeo and Juliet is all part of this gigantic inter-arts experiment — one that the director hopes will have a lasting impact on the Institution.

Benesch hopes this collaboration will continue after the project’s single performance in the Amp; she hopes to eventually include the show in a future Chautauqua season. Benesch said that too many people on many different levels, including administration, have put a great deal of effort into the project to not see it flourish.

But before the cast and crew can even begin thinking about the future of the show, they have to see how the amalgamation fares tonight.

“This has been the most terrifying thing I’ve ever taken on,” Benesch said. “I know already, no matter what happens tonight, what has happened this past year in creating this piece has been one of the most stimulating and challenging artistic experiences, bar none. It is about the process and the event. What we get out of today is the excitement of seeing something that no one has seen before.”

The leap she is talking about involves how The Romeo & Juliet Project has come together. For Benesch, who described this vamped-up version as a “greatest hits” of Shakespeare’s work, part of the challenge — and delight — was figuring out what to cut from the text, and at the same time, what to include from other Romeo and Juliet-influenced art forms.

While editing Shakespeare’s lengthy text, Benesch and the rest of the team had to focus on what the story was truly about: love. Benesch admits that it was artistically scarring to cut some of the characters and iconic moments from the play; however, many of the omissions have been replaced with sequences necessary for the production’s various art forms.

For instance, Mercutio’s infamous “Queen Mab” speech has been verbally cut from the show; it will be replaced by Charles-François Gounod’s “Queen Mab” aria, from his opera Roméo et Juliette. Every choice was meant to help distill the story to its basic foundation.

“I think that the essence of Romeo and Juliet is still very full and very there [in the production],” said Brian Smolin, the CTC conservatory actor who is playing Romeo. “It’s just that the things the story is couched in have been changed to something else equally amazing. I think love is such a gigantic emotion that has been the basis of nearly all art ever.”

It’s these fundamental roots of the story that helped Benesch decide what scenes needed to remain within the work. She said that there were certain moments in the show that demanded the three pairs of performers to show their skills, such as the cherished balcony scene.

The balcony scene will host the three couplings of the young lovers, as that moment of the show has proved to be a perfect place to include all three art forms — opera, dance and acting. Juliet runs off the stage twice to speak to her nurse, and each time she returns, it will be a new Juliet taking the audience through a similar interpretation of the scene.

As the actors have gone through this process, it has become a special experience to work with two other performers playing the same role.

“For me, it just really helps that I’m not going through it alone,” said Arielle Goldman, the CTC conservatory actress playing Juliet. “It just has encouraged everyone to dive in and experiment and risk and try your biggest and boldest, because everyone else is and we’re all in it together doing it at the same time.”

Benesch said that has been another one of the greatest joys of putting this project together. She enjoyed watching everyone learn from each other and hoped that the audience will learn just as much. She wants people to enjoy familiarizing themselves with other interpretations of Shakespeare’s work, including ballet, opera and even more modernized versions (the project includes a tip of the hat to Leonard Bernstein).

“This is a story that has been told again and again because it’s demanded to be told again and again,” Smolin said. “It’s that big and that beautiful and that legendary. And, this production is the closest to as big as the story is. I don’t know if you can ever get as big as the story, but this is the closest I’ve seen.”