David Garrett, production director for Thomas Nelson’s performance of Shakepeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” knows most people were first exposed to the classic tragedy in a high school English class. He also realizes most people have an immediate reaction when hearing the title.
“Either you hated every bit of studying it and could live the rest of your life without ever looking at it and be fine, or you really enjoyed it,” he said. “But what’s also important is that it’s prolific in adaptation.”
That’s where the College’s production next month comes into play.
“It is not by any stretch a purist’s version, but to me that makes it more interesting and more fun for the audience as well as the performers,” he said. “If we are just trying to re-create what has been done hundreds of thousands of times over hundreds of years, great, that’s awesome. It’s a really fun classroom exercise … But for theater, I very much believe it needs to be a living art.”
That doesn’t mean there are major changes. In fact, there aren’t. There is only slight dialogue change because of a few gender swaps, brought about in part to take advantage of the strength of the cast.
“While we changed gender of characters to fit the actors that came out, I feel it still stays true to his intentions,” Garrett said of William Shakespeare, who wrote the play in the late 16th century. “It doesn’t have a big impact on the meaning of the character when you do that.”
Lawrence Nichols, a 20-year-old Thomas Nelson student who’s playing Paris, likes Garrett’s adaptation.
“It’s the same play,” said Nichols, who recently was accepted into Virginia Commonwealth University’s theater program. “A lot of the dialogue’s the same but the changes come with how it feels and the tone he’s setting, how the conflict plays out. I think it gives the play a lot of energy.”
Garrett said when the audience devotes so much attention to the title characters and their relationship, they often miss out on other interesting players, among them the Montagues, Prince Escalus and Friar Lawrence.
To avoid that, Garrett is putting more emphasis on Friar Lawrence. And to take advantage of the talents of former Thomas Nelson student Jennifer Abbot, Friar Lawrence will be played by a woman and recast as Pastor Lawrence. While acknowledging that Romeo and Juliet are tragic figures, Garrett was also trying to find a more classic tragic hero. He doesn’t classify the pair of young lovers as your traditional good and noble individuals who tempt fate and cause extraordinary suffering to themselves and those around them.
“Who I do think fits that criteria is Lawrence,” Garrett said.
Pastor Lawrence performs the secret marriage of Romeo and Juliet, and Garrett’s approach is that everything else that happens is because the pastor agreed to perform the ceremony.
Joe Tapia, a 27-year-old from Suffolk who is set to graduate from Thomas Nelson in May, likes Garrett’s take on the play.
“I feel like it’s fresh,” said Tapia, who is playing Tybalt. “He’s trying to add an extra layer of relevancy that people might not have thought would be there … It gives it character.”
Garrett wants the audience to be challenged visually, through sound and philosophically.
“When you leave a tragedy, when you leave a story that is intended to be about great sadness, I think that you should leave with things to chew on,” he said.
The play runs April 5 - 14 at the Dr. Mary T. Christian Auditorium in Templin Hall with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m., and 3 p.m. shows on Sunday. Available online at tncc.edu/performingarts, tickets range from $10-15.