We’ve seen some pretty fanciful takes on the Bard in the past year, beginning with Shakespeare Carolina’s maiden venture at the Winthrop Amphitheatre, where a bicycle rolled onto the stage in Comedy of Errors. Since then, Shakespeare has met the Beatles in Love’s Labor’s Lost and Superfly in Measure for Measure. So the last place you’d expect to find star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet is in Verona as ShakesCar returns to the great outdoors.
What’s really surprising is that director Chris O’Neill’s idea for repatriating the ancient feud between the Montagues and the Capulets isn’t driven by sheer mischief or perversity. Rendering the world’s most popular romantic tragedy unto two videogames, Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia, was actually a practical decision.
People who came to Comedy of Errors last July, through fair and rainy weather, liked what they saw — even on that legendary night when O’Neill and crew had to scrounge up a phalanx of flashlights during intermission to light up Act 2. “But it was so damn hot and humid,” O’Neill explains. “I thought I’ve got to look at concepts where skimpy clothing is acceptable and not gratuitous.”
Even though O’Neill had never fired up either of the video sagas, he booked the Bard of Avon for a voyage across the Mediterranean. “The video games were just what I used in my research for pictures to give my costume designer, and I kind of rolled with it because a lot of younger people know what these games are. I figured, what the hell - it’s sort of like I Dream of Jeannie with an edge!”
Potions and swordplay, mainstays in Shakespeare, jibe well with a Persian motif, and O’Neill is especially relishing an opportunity to put a new face on the Act 1, Scene 5 party scene, where the lovebirds meet. The wife of ShakesCar actor Charles Holmes is a well-regarded belly dancer and instructor who performs as Naima Sultana. She will be choreographing the party scene entertainment while Holmes has been working on the fight choreography and playing Romeo’s chum Benvolio. The director’s wife, Jill O’Neill, will also contribute to the party as the main component of her sound design, playing alto flute with backup from two percussionists.
Moving the outdoor production from early July to late August won’t make the evenings less sultry as Sultana’s students gyrate in their skimpy costumes, but O’Neill is counting on less unpredictable weather. A couple of grants have helped him to upgrade the equipment at the Amphitheatre, so lighting also figures to be more constant. The schedule shift brings the run of Romeo and Juliet into alignment with Winthrop U’s Welcome Week, so there’s a distinct possibility that the spooning lovers — and the Persian enticements — may generate some walk-up traffic.
The two protagonists from this July’s As You Like It return, but not necessarily as you would expect. Nathan Kelly Rouse, who was the fugitive Orlando last month, returns as Romeo, but Katie Bearden, after spending most of her evening cross-dressing as the banished Rosalind, isn’t returning as the luminous Juliet. Before the season began, Bearden told O’Neill that she wanted to learn how to fight, so she’ll be wielding an assassin’s sword as Juliet’s most bellicose sibling, Tybalt. Caryn Crye, last seen as Celimene in ShakesCar’s The Misanthrope in June, switches from selfie-absorbed to demure as Juliet.
James Cartee has been tapped to do Mercutio — “with all the drunken swashbuckling swagger that he can muster,” according to O’Neill. The climactic swordfights have been in the works since March, and O’Neill is confident that the whole exotic concept will click.
“If I can get all my lights and everything to work,” he says, “we’ll be good to go.