Death Hath No Power Over Thy Beauty: Romeo & Juliet Comes to Guild Hall

The tomb: Romeo kneeling beside Juliet. He thinks she is dead, but she is only drugged. Romeo has just killed Paris, who is on the ground behind her.
The tomb: Romeo kneeling beside Juliet. He thinks she is dead, but she is only drugged. Romeo has just killed Paris, who is on the ground behind her.  |  Kara Westerman photos

Death Hath No Power Over Thy Beauty

Romeo & Juliet Comes to Guild Hall

by Kara Westerman

The play Romeo and Juliet has survived since the late 1500s, no doubt because love, lust, bigamy, revenge and murder are the essential ingredients for a long-running play.

This one has been running somewhere in the world without a break since Shakespeare first wrote it. Even the Victorians solved their prudishness by changing the play’s sobering ending so that everyone who dies eventually comes back to life.

“This play has been mucked with and mucked with and mucked with in every which way,” says Josh Gladstone, artistic director of the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, who is directing a new production of Romeo & Juliet opening this month.

But, he said, “the idea that the fates are always there, that exterior forces are so much in control of the actors, is one of the great themes of the play that is unchanging…. How much agency do we really have in life? It’s interesting.”

He hopes this modern production, running March 14 through 25, will covey this timeless theme.

“This is such an iconic role in an iconic play. Everyone has preconceived notions of how it should be, and what the play really means,” says Olivia De Salvo, who is playing Juliet. “But every time I say the words out loud, I find something new and surprising.”

She believes the play has survived all these years because there is something otherworldly about it, something unexplainable.

“People will be debating forever what it is really that motivates us — is it fate or the choices you make or…?” she says. “People will continue to ask those questions until there is no more language left.”

There are skateboards and cell phones in this very current interpretation, and Olivia tells me she will even get to play a bit of electric guitar.
The lovers in this production are both young enough to be perfectly believable as 14-year-old souls. Both have an ethereal, sculpted beauty, and both actors have some serious talent, intellectual spark, curiosity about their process and about the the world they are creating.

Olivia, not too far out of high school herself, is a raven-haired beauty with a delicate frame, but even her soft-spoken manner cannot hide the power she commands with her presence.

In addition to her training at the Herbert Berghof Conservatory in Manhattan, she grew up with every single Shakespeare play on giant bookshelves in her living room.

“Both my parents are artists. My mother is a very talented actress and my dad is a jazz musician. I grew up in a world of play,” she says.

“I am finding out how exhausting it is to do these really emotional scenes back to back — it’s very, very intense,” she says, giggling, when asked what surprised her most about playing Juliet. “I’m in a lot of the scenes.”

As to heartbreak? She took a moment to place herself back to her teenage years to probe the depth of that emotion.

“I have had a broken heart, not of this measure…but I can relate to the shock and yearning,” she said. :I have had love like Romeo and Juliet…I can connect to feeling like I could die for somebody else. When I was 14, I was very defiant. The world was just opening up for me, and everything I was doing, I was doing for the first time. I remember seeing someone at a party and having those feelings like — nothing else matters.”

I was invited to sit on-stage in the circle of Shakespearean actors rehearsing as they parsed out the language, line by line.

The process of paraphrasing each word, an intensive excavation of the Bard’s language in each of the actor’s own lines, before the actual script is seared into their brains, is an important step in a weeks-long process that was finally concluding on the night I attended the rehearsal.

They were in the middle of the last scene between the two lovers in their tomb, when Romeo, played by Alexander Might, finds Juliet asleep, but believes her to be dead. The cast was speaking in depth about the final kiss between Juliet and her Romeo.

The tomb: Paris surprises Romeo grieving over Juliet, who he believes is dead. Paris is there to grieve for her also. Romeo turns the tables and kills Paris.
The tomb: Paris surprises Romeo grieving over Juliet, who he believes is dead. Paris is there to grieve for her also. Romeo turns the tables and kills Paris.

“Death has the hots for her. Death loves her, right?” Gladstone asked Romeo.

Romeo: Eyes, take your last look, arms your last embrace, and lips, doors of breath, seal closed with a kiss.

Gladstone: Does this kiss mirror that first kiss? How about this idea of ‘the righteous kiss’?

Alexander: My kiss to Juliet gives her my sin. I can take my sin back from her with another kiss.

Gladstone: Ever since you had that palm-to-palm in your first meeting, the holy kiss was like a thing between you. There’s a quality to the actual kiss itself that has a holy tenderness to it.

Olivia: All of the adjectives to describe these kisses — ‘holy, sinful, righteous’ — there’s something so powerful about our kiss that it can be both ‘sinful’ and ‘otherworldly.’

Gladstone: It’s a hell of a kiss! So many productions have chosen this as a definitive moment. In some productions this kiss actually wakes her up! What do you think is happening for you in this moment, Alex?

Alexander: I think all three kisses are very different. This one really has to be the last. I’m not sure what that means yet…

Gladstone: It’s just a hell of a moment. ‘Oh you, the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss…’ I think the affection is beautiful. It’s so tender that you’re there with her and the last thing that you do is kiss her.

Alexander: Yeah. Maybe I’m kissing her face first. And then finally I kiss her lips.

Gladstone: Oh… that’s sweet. OK. Wow. Powerful moment. Okay let’s keep going!

Mr. Gladstone is harkening back to his beginnings as a director with this production.

After stints with various Shakespeare companies as a young actor, his passion for the profession propelled him into more classical training from the Circle In The Square Theater’s professional workshop in New York City after college.

In 1996 Mr. Gladstone and his cousin, David Brandenburg, decided to stage a play in Montauk instead of waiting tables for the summer season.

After getting permission, they rehearsed and staged a production of Romeo and Juliet at Theodore Roosevelt State County Park in Montauk.

They maxed out their credit cards and called all the actors they knew in New York City. They were astonished to find the opening night audience for the first performance of the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival was over 500 people. A theater company was born.

Mr. Gladstone’s wife, Kate Mueth, is a talented actress and director who has been involved in the productions from the early days. She directs productions for her own company, The Neo-Political Cowgirls, teaches the Young Cowgirls workshops at Guild Hall, and creates visually fantastical outdoor performance extravaganzas in summer and winter in Montauk.

When she became pregnant with their son, August, Mr. Gladstone took a job at the theater in Guild Hall to create some steady income for the family. He chose Romeo and Juliet as his first production on the Guild Hall stage.

So, this is his third beginning with the play. Its a family affair all around — Mr. Gladstone will play Romeo’s father, Ms. Mueth will play the role of the nurse in this production, Guild Hall Artistic Director Andrea Grover’s husband Carlos Lama, and daughter Lola Lama, are also in the cast.

After a break in the rehearsal, we reassemble back in the tomb where Juliet has woken to find Romeo dead beside her.

Mr. Gladstone reminds his cast that here she has one of the great lines in all of Shakespeare:

Juliet: ‘Your lips are warm.’

Gladstone: Bang.

Juliet:  ‘Ah, happy dagger!’

Gladstone: “What’s the sheath? Alex, pass that over here.”

Olivia: It’s the cover. Oh…the sheath being my chest…

Gladstone: Your heart. ‘I will sheath this dagger in my heart.’ Then she stabs herself.

The cast giggles at the apparent absurdity of Juliet plunging such a huge knife into her heart.

Prince (Carlos Lama): There’s got to be a lot of blood…depends on if you get it between the ribs or not …

Paris (Everett Hibner): When you’re dead you stop bleeding. You don’t bleed out if you’re dead.

An older cast member jokes: “Oh, so you know all about that – hun?” to the young Paris with a smile.

Gladstone: Show the dagger. This is not the gentle lady dagger that you would set by your pillow.

(More laughter from the cast)

Gladstone: Imagine the strength of will that it must take in this moment! You don’t have twenty lines. Juliet just takes it and knows.

Olivia: I decided since the moment I saw him dead.

Ensemble: That’s dark, very dark.

The tomb: Montague, Romeo's father, the Capulet parents and the friar who arranged the marriage have just found all three teenagers dead.
The tomb: Montague, Romeo’s father, the Capulet parents and the friar who arranged the marriage have just found all three teenagers dead.

Mr. Gladstone commands his troupe with humor and inquisitiveness, never pretending to fully understand all the intricacies of the text, but developing his own understanding alongside his cast, who range in age from their teens to their 60s.

Despite his intimate knowledge of Shakespeare, he understands that each actor must interpret and understand the text in their own way, and sometimes there is more than one route to take. He wants each actor to come to their own conclusions and revelations. Luckily everyone has an annotated copy of the script.

“Can you imagine how this feels to the families who find their children in the tomb?” Mr.  Gladstone asks. “It’s astonishing what this must be like!”

Minerva Perez, who plays Lady Capulet, is thankful that her character doesn’t have many lines in this scene.

At this point “There is nothing to say, almost no sounds to make…there’s something otherworldly about this degree of shock and grief,” she says. “Very close to that kind of silent scream where nothing can come out. There’s nothing left at this point.”

Gladstone: I think that’s profound. Because the death of Juliet is this choric keening lamentation — the heart is completely broken — maybe there is something profoundly silent about it for everyone.

He asks the cast if any of them has actually been in shock, and an EMT among the players describes the kinds of shock that can kill you, and others that protect you from pain when you’ve been wounded. Most have a story to tell of having to see their grandfather in his open coffin, or breaking their arm, or being in a car accident.

Gladstone: How does this play end — in a great huzzah? No, it ends with a community in shock – everyone in shock — and hopefully the audience will be shocked and surprised and pained — the gravitas of silence is the thing for me. That’s what we’re going for in the re-telling. We say it right at the top in our prologue — we’re going to tell you this story, and it’s unbelievable — but in order for it to be effective we have to commit right up until the last morsel of this thing!

Lady Capulet (Minerva):  ‘Oh me, the sight of death is as a bell that warns my old age…’ this warns me that I’m not going to live much longer.

The cast decides to run through the scene in the tomb for an improvisation with movement. Even at this stage in their rehearsal process, each actor has already found much. It is riveting to watch as Mr. Glastone enters the scene from the back of the theater, the floor onstage littered with dead bodies, and makes his way up the stairs onto the stage with a huge and howling presence.

His voice booms and echoes with true grief and rage.
“What has happened here??” he shouts over and over, demanding his cast match his intensity, demanding an answer from those who can no longer speak.

His energy immediately raises the stakes for every actor on stage, palpably fearing this sudden injection of real and raw emotion from their director.

One of the reasons Mr. Gladstone picked this play to stage in the winter season was so that the theater could incorporate the community, especially students from the local schools, so he is excited when one of the youngest and least experienced in the cast asks a great question:

“I’m just curious —  how do people cry? I can’t really cry, like, when I want to, or, like, ever…”

Gladstone: Any of the veteran actors want to respond to young high school student Clancy’s question? Truthfulness is the key, right? You can’t fake it, because if you fake it the audience will know. You have to either feel it or just listen. Great acting is about connecting. We’re lucky because we have one of the best bits of material that’s ever been written by a human being in history.

Capulet (Robert Anthony): You find something in your life that is alive to you.

Paris (Everett): It’s all in the breath. When you cry , you know how you — huff, huff, huff — you can’t really help it and you feel that intense need, and you just keep breathing in — let the breath go.

Gladstone: There’s an old actor’s trick where you keep a peeled onion right here in your armpit, but I don’t want you to do that, Clancy. That’s the cheap way. You have to try to emotionally connect to the circumstance of your character in the moment. Some of you older actors probably do some sense memory work, right?

Alexander: Strasberg’s idea of sense memory is that you interact with the sensations of things in your life that bring up the memory of an event that could put you in the emotional state. There are smells of certain things that trigger me, as opposed to thinking ‘my sister’s gonna die, my sister’s gonna die…’ The expectation of crying won’t get you anywhere. There are more interesting ways. And people who feel full emotions onstage and don’t cry  — that’s just as compelling to watch.

Gladstone (softly): For me, it’s very easy. I have a son — “ he says softly. “All I have to do is say his name and I’m instantly connected to the idea of losing that son. I will never — (he wells up) —  not feel the power of that moment. But you have to find the things for you.

Gladstone: We have this incredible language to connect with. Now that we’ve finished paraphrasing, you have a roadmap and you can have an honest visceral connection. How do you sustain that through ten performances? Well, that’s the great challenge. Great actors train! An actor is no different than an athlete. Your job is to find the connections.

Great directors lead each person in an ensemble cast into their own understandings and connections to the text. Even in his third production of the play, Mr. Gladstone is finding nuances that surprise and excite his imagination.

These artists are serious about their craft. It is infectious to watch him lead his actors, like a pied piper, into deeper and truer understandings of the story and themselves. If you think that this infection won’t translate to the stage, I can tell you that it already has.

Romeo and Juliet will run for 10 performances, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m. and Fridays through Sundays at 7 p.m. starting March 14 and running through March 25.

Tickets are $25 for general admission, $23 for members or $10 for students. To see details and reserve seats, go to guildhall.org.


Kara Westerman

Kara Westerman is a fiction author, teacher, oral history facilitator and writing workshop leader. She received her fiction MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and produces and hosts the podcast Phantom Hampton: Stories From Where The Rest of Us Live.

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