U.Va. Drama Offers Fresh Look at Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet'

April 5, 2012 — The University of Virginia Drama Department is peeling back the layers of one of the most oft-told love stories with a new production of "Romeo and Juliet."

Set to debut April 19 at Culbreth Theatre, this production is directed by Brantley Dunaway, executive director of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.

This time around, the tale of the Montagues and Capulets is set in the Mississippi Delta of the early 20th century and, according its director, has been fashioned with accessibility in mind.

"When people think of Shakespeare, because of the heightened language and the poetry, they view it as erudite," Dunaway said. "They see it as this sort of highbrow type of writing and medium. But we have to remember that when Shakespeare was writing, he wasn't writing for the upper crust. He was writing for the groundlings, for the common man. So especially in this play, there is some bawdiness to it. We like to soften it up by saying it is the greatest tragic love story, but there is more to it than that."

Dunaway has also chosen to add a new dimension to the play by borrowing from a controversial version.

"The predominant edition of the play that was performed in the United States in the 1800s was something called 'the Garrick edition,'" he said. "He basically came along and decided the play needed to be more sensible. So he compiled a new version through found pages. And since these pages had not necessarily been validated, they are quite controversial among scholars."

The version, he said, will likely have audiences talking on their way out of the theater.

"There is definitely a scene that audiences are going to be surprised at. We have only taken two pages from the Garrick edition, but it gives the story a brand-new twist," he said. "Let's just say it involves a monumental scene in the play that will have the audience rubbing their eyes and saying 'Wait a minute, what just happened?'"

The Deep South setting, he said, allows the production to address an important issue that is largely ignored in the play itself. "We've always wondered why the Montagues and the Capulets fight. It's never really addressed in the play," he said.

"We address that by setting it in the Mississippi Delta during this time period. The Capulets are a very traditional, conservative, established agricultural-based family. The Montagues' backstory is that they are a shipping family. He is a mogul. So it was kind of what was happening in the Delta at the time. You have a shipping mogul who is driving down the prices of agriculture. Both are dependent on each other, yet both are in constant conflict."

"Romeo and Juliet" will be presented at 8 p.m. April 19 through 21 and April 25 through 28. A 2 p.m. matinee will be on April 29. Ticket prices are $14 ($12 for seniors, U.Va. faculty, staff and Alumni Association members; $8 for students), and are available online, by phone at 434-924-3376 or in person weekdays from noon until 5 p.m. at the U.Va. Arts Box Office in the lobby of the Culbreth Theatre building.

Free parking is available at the Culbreth Road Parking Garage, located alongside the theaters.