Arts theater review

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

The Shakespeare Ensemble presents Romeo and Juliet, a classic masterpiece that has transcended love and death for centuries

7979 romeoandjuliet
The loudmouthed Nurse (Grace Kuffner '20) yaps to Juliet (Amelia Smith '17)
Shakespeare Ensemble

Romeo and Juliet
Directed by Francine Davis
Performed by The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble
Written by William Shakespeare, slightly modified by Francine Davis
Nov. 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, and 12
La Sala de Puerto Rico, Student Center

As the lights dim in La Sala on the second floor of the Stud, the spotlight focuses on a quiet scene in fair Verona (crafted by set designer Jakob Weisblat ’18), where the age-old tragedy of star-crossed lovers is about to unfold. With their rendition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble brings forth the time-worn themes of fate and free will, love and lust, that Shakespeare introduced in theaters centuries ago. The famed tragedy, directed by long-time theater veteran Francine Davis, brings the audience many laughs, tears, and the entire spectrum between the two.

In the quaint Italian city of Verona, two families are in feud. The Montagues’ and the Capulets’ never-ending strife causes Prince Escalus (Kate Yee ’20) much grief. When young Romeo (Colin Aitken ’17) of the Montague family and Juliet (Amelia Smith ’17) of the Capulet family fall madly in love, yet aren’t able to express it as a result of the family feud, a series of unfortunate events unfold.

The entire cast does a fantastic job expressing the complexity and color in Shakespeare’s once-colloquial, now-esoteric language. Colin Aitken ’17 and Amelia Smith ’17 as Romeo and Juliet drive the show with their bumbling story of innocent, young love. Raine Hasskew ’17 steals the spotlight as the flamboyantly coarse Mercutio; Grace Kuffner ’20 peppers the performance with many laughs as the loud-mouthed Nurse. The precisely choreographed fight scenes, especially the one between Tybalt (Joey Noszek ’20) and Mercutio, bring the verve and energy of a fencing bout to the stage.

In learning their lines and roles, the actors grow into their characters. Aitken says about his own character, Romeo: “He’s just a kid who hasn’t learned to distinguish the butterflies in his stomach from love, and spends much of the play trying to do the right thing… stop a fight, avenge his friend, protect his wife... but basically through bad luck, gets thrown in these completely awful situations… and when he tries to stop it, he just makes things worse. While the scale of it is pretty extreme, I think the basic story of ‘dumb kid means well but accidentally ruins everything’ is a pretty universal one, and makes Romeo a very identifiable character for me.”

Smith admits about her character, Juliet: “Juliet has been my most challenging role yet! She has such powerful and varied emotions. Her mannerisms and voice are quite different from mine, since she’s very young and has to behave properly and obediently around her family. The cleverness and beauty of her poetry has been incredibly fun to play with. I also appreciate her rebelliousness against a family and society that insists on keeping her trapped. In spite of her circumstances, she throws so much love and innocence at the world and at Romeo, and she gets so tragically punished for it.”

We also can’t forget the talent that lies behind the scenes, where the Ensemble production crew turns the gears and directs the play. “Lights Obi-Wan” David Ricardo ’18 artfully brings emphasis to the mood of a scene with carefully chosen and timed lighting, such as a cold blue glow in the tomb site where the lovers die. Props designed by Run Chen ’18, such as baskets of apples and little vials of poison, add touches of realism to the scene. Simple, beautiful costumes designed by Emily Ramirez ’19 — such as the Nurse’s billowy apron and toothy grin, Mercutio’s flashy blue tunic, Juliet’s simple and innocent white skirt, and Benvolio’s humble brown outfit — match their characters well.

While a modern society of sci-fi and fantasy lovers may think Shakespeare’s work is outdated and unrelatable, Rona Wang ’20, who plays Lady Montague, sees the beauty in the Bard.

“I’m always stunned by how well-done Shakespeare’s plays are in terms of pacing, plot structure, characterization, and quick wit!” says Wang. “Shakespeare appealed to the everyman back in his age, and his works shouldn’t be regarded as solemn, unapproachable, high-brow masterpieces; rather, they have something for everyone.”

Amelia agrees. “I love Shakespeare’s works because they’re such big stories with incredibly high stakes so far beyond the mundane. The language and poetry are also really fun to work with as an actor... My favorite line that I get to say would probably be ‘Take him and cut him out in little stars/And he will make the face of heaven so fine/That all the world will be in love with night.’”

There’s no doubt the Shakespeare Ensemble sports a cast and crew of very talented members, all of which dedicated a large portion of their busy MIT lives to the success of the show.

“I didn’t realize ahead of time how big of an issue Impostor Syndrome was going to be. I feel like on one hand it’s kind of weird to try to complain to people that ‘I don’t feel like I deserve this role,’ but at the same time I have spent much of the process worrying that I was blatantly miscast and was therefore dragging down the entire play,” admits Aitken, who’s been in the Ensemble since his freshman year at MIT.

From memorizing lines like “Godgigoden,” to blocking, to perfecting the details of each sword movement in the fight choreography, the actors have poured their hearts into the production. As Rona’s first Ensemble experience, Romeo and Juliet was a commitment much larger than than she had expected.

“There’s so much work that goes into putting on a play that, as a theatre-goer, I took for granted,” she says. But the hours of hard work pays off in the end. “Seeing the show come together for the first time in dress rehearsal is always magical,” said Smith.

Luckily, rehearsals are also a lot of fun. “For this show, Colin and I had a fun time practicing not giggling while ‘dead’,” said Smith ’17. “I also enjoy[ed] sword fighting, power tools, and memorizing pretty verse.”

The hours and hours of rehearsal also have their effects on the Ensemble community. Especially after the 30-40 hours of “Prod Week” rehearsal the week before the show, the Ensemble becomes a tight-knit family, and even new members grow close to the veterans.  There is a lot of love and respect between each of the members.

“I’m such a big fan of all the other actors in the show! They’re all so amazing and play their characters so well... It’s been so much fun getting to work with them over the past few months, and I honestly feel like it’s just been such a big honor to get to know them better,” says Colin.

Amelia agrees that “bonding with the amazing cast and crew [was] a wonderful experience.”

Who knows what the Ensemble will put together for us in the future? It may be Timon of Athens, which Colin is eager to do. Just this past summer, the Ensemble produced a Shakespeare-sci-fi fusion of Star Trek and The Tempest. Whatever they choose, we are sure to see extraordinary talent fused with the artistry of the Bard.

The Shakespeare Ensemble’s rendition of Romeo and Juliet opened last weekend and will be running November 10-12 at 8 p.m., in La Sala de Puerto Rico (west side of the second floor in the Student Center). “Don’t be fortune’s fool” — don’t miss it!