Ask Philippa: ROMEO & JULIET Edition

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. Romeo & Juliet runs through July 28, 2013.

Choose your side. Choose your weapon. Choose your love.“My mind misgives/Some consequence yet hanging in the stars,” says Romeo early in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This, Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, has long been seen as a tale of young love blighted by fate. Yet, as director Shana Cooper notes, the “fateful” blow to this love story is delivered not by fate, but by Romeo himself when he chooses to kill Tybalt, protecting his honor above the fragile blossom of his new love. Intriguing, provoking, heartbreaking, Romeo and Juliet compels us to question our most dearly-held beliefs about love—when to indulge it, how to express it, how to protect it, and whether it’s possible to let it go before it expires of its own accord.

Are you going to see our production of Romeo & Juliet?  Do you have questions or comments about the production’s cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

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17 Responses to Ask Philippa: ROMEO & JULIET Edition

  1. Richard Olsen says:

    Missed you for today’s Pre-Performance Talk and hosting the Meet the Artists session.

  2. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Richard,

    I’m so sorry to have missed it too – I’ll be back on the 15th, speaking in the grove on the 16th, 21st, 24th, the Sunday talkback that weekend, and all talks on the last weekend, should you feel like seeing the show again I am in Australia, hosting the Australasian Universities’ Language and Literature Association biennial conference. See you soon, and do let me know if you are coming to R and J again and it would be lovely to say hi

  3. Joan Hamilton says:

    Why was the stage so stark? Why kilts as costume and plastic as a weapon and a shroud?

  4. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Joan,

    The starkness of the stage asks the question, as our grove speaker Joanie beautifully put it: ‘can anything grow in such a barren environment?’ The stage functions as a metaphor for the broken-down relationships between the two families, in which nothing seems able to grow and flourish. And yet anyone who’s ever seen a barren plot of land will know the astonishment of seeing a flower spring up. Remember, this play is set in July – the height of summer – and amidst the barrenness and violence there grows the luscious young plant of love. The kilts allow actors playing multiple roles to pass quickly from one costume to the next. The shroud was, I thought, a brilliant evocation of the suffocation of life in this hot, sweltering Verona that harbors overheated passions. A knife for one character, suffocation for another – both ways lead to death.

  5. Gary Downing says:

    I found Rebekah Brockman embodiment of Juliet’s youthful passion thoroughly mesmerizing even BEFORE seeing the performance. The “Romeo Kiss” image promoting this production set this in motion, then the absence of the backdrops forced my attention on the performers focusing on her light.

    Our group was pleasantly surprised to discover how some performer’s lines were delivered: serious sentiments delivered lightly while lighter ones delivered heavier. This effectively made us reevaluate many of the preconceptions we had: that Romeo was a victim of their family’s feuding for example. One audience member asked afterwards “How could we care about a double murderer!” (ie. Romeo). Wow!

  6. philippa kelly says:

    Gary, this is a wonderful question: how could we care about a double murderer? Or, as in Macbeth, about a serial killer? Or, as in Othello, about a man who, after only three days’ marriage, murders his wife? Or, in Lear, a man who refers to women as the sites of venereal infection and pestilence (‘There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit …’ and yet, historically, school girls are the single most avid audience for King Lear). You’ve hit on something very important – the fact that Shakespeare takes these characters and builds into them the most remarkable metaphor, which locates us, living, breathing, feeling, within these characters’ hearts. Your comment brings to mind the definition of empathy in the OED: ‘the power of projecting one’s personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation.’ This is what Shakespeare gives us – texts that call on what we, the audience, have deep inside, binding us to his characters even as we judge them. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the production – I’ll send this on to Shana and the team so they are sure to see it.

  7. Bonnie Barkett says:

    Hi Philippa,

    It was so nice to chat with you after Romeo and Juliet yesterday. We were talking about why this production portrayed the killing of Tybalt as a suffocation rather than the traditional sword fight. Will you please expand upon your explanation of the symbolism of the suffocation? Thank you.

    Ella and Bonnie

  8. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Ella and Bonnie,
    Firstly, the suffocation plastic grew out of Shana’s essence work. At some part of each day she asks two or three actors to make a piece – devoid of language – that uses the body to make a connection with the production. One of these pieces involved that plastic. The aim of essence work is to sort-of set people out on a raft without the ‘oars’ of language, making them really FEEL where they are with the production and with their connection to it. You saw the effects of that in the show – essence work (in taking away language) actually helps actors when they come to verse, not to be cowed by it – to attack it and use it in its most natural, muscular form. Secondly, Verona is hot, claustrophobic with pent-up emotion, ready to explode. Mercutio has already been killed, and the plastic gives a sense of the overheated emotion of the environment, its suffocating quality. And then there is the thematic role of the plastic that can then resurface at the end – it becomes the mark of death once again.

  9. David Fickbohm says:

    How old is Romeo supposed to be?
    Brilliant R&J yesterday and a wonderful discussion afterwards.
    Take care

  10. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Dave,

    Romeo’s specific age is never given; but since he is allowed to carry a sword, we can assume he is about 17. Yes, it was such an enjoyable talkback yesterday! Thank you for helping to make it so. Don’t forget the Scoop next Monday night!!

  11. Dick Patsey says:

    Hi Phillipa: I’m a senior citizen with a hearing problem who has been a season ticket subscriber for years. The audio changes made in the Romeo and Juliet performance allowed me to hear everything said by every character, and added immensely to my enjoyment of the production. My thanks to whomever was responsible. Hi hope this new feature remains.

  12. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Dick,
    It makes me very happy to think you can hear everything! THANKYOU for letting us know!

  13. skalem says:

    Hi, Dick. Stefanie from Cal Shakes here just letting you know that you have two of our corporate partners, Meyer Sound and Sound Associates, to thank. We’re glad this new, PERMANENT sound upgrade had improved your Bruns experience so much. And in case you’re interested, this season (thanks in part to the Theatre Development Fund) we are also doing one open-captioned performance during the run of each production, and we hope to continue doing so in future seasons. Check out the open-captioned dates here:, and thanks again for your kind words and longtime support!

  14. Bruce Joffe says:

    One thing I remember about your comments before the show was the observation about Romeo’s love for Juliette being a fig of his imagination – his fantasy, his idealization of love which he ascribed onto Juliette. He loved her without any real appreciation for who she actually is. And Juliette, the same – she loved Romeo, perhaps, because of his passion for her. Well, isn’t that the way love arises? Most often, we love the person we imagine him/her to be, and only later do we learn who the person really is. Moreover, I believe that we love the person our lover sees in her/his eyes when looking at ourselves. We love being seen as that idealization in the other’s eyes, and hold the hope that we might actually become that ideal. Well, the test of love’s lasting is being able to love and appreciate one’s lover (and also oneself), after the fantasy fades and we see who that other really is: both their good and their bad qualities. Lasting love loves tolerance and patience as well as passion and imagination!

    The Bard got it so right!
    And your explanations/interpretations help reveal his messages so well!

  15. philippa kelly says:

    Dear Bruce,
    This is beautifully articulated. I do think that it’s true that, as Helena says in Midsummer ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind,/And therefore is fair Cupid painted blind;’ and that the test of love is that one the (metaphorical) love juice has worn off, one can continue to love. And then there is the question of love between parents and children. I hope you don’t think it brazen of me to quote a little piece here from my book, THE KING AND I:

    ‘what does it mean to come home? I have not been thrown out as Cordelia has – but for most of us, ‘coming home’ to a father is not necessarily about returning from exile. It is about sitting at the kitchen table with your parent, his face receding more and more, like an old satchel – and knowing that there is ‘the bond’ that Lear and his daughter have come to see the meaning of; knowing that as your parent moves toward the end of his life, you can be there at the table and there is love. Cordelia says, ‘Oh dear father! Restoration hang/Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss/Repair those violent harms that my two sisters/Have in thy reverence made’ (4.6.23-26). Her youth and his aged delicacy might move us to think of her as the one who brings restoration to him: but here she is hoping that he will give her medicine, and that he will be able to receive hers. She wants to be restored, and to receive forgiveness for whatever wrong she has done him. The most facile and oft-quoted line I have ever heard is ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ Love means being able to say you are sorry, and being able to have your apology received. Love is restoration, love is that moment of calm and strength when you know that you have both survived the storm – the atrocious storm that Lear has had to endure, or even just the storm of life itself. Love means you are home – both home. Shakespeare doesn’t let father and daughter bolt the door and stir the hearth and live happily ever after; he doesn’t even let them sing in their cage for very long; but still, for a moment, they are home.’

  16. Rebecca says:

    Hi Philippa,

    I just saw the performance last night — brilliant! It was very entertaining. I wanted to ask a few questions about the theme(s) of the play and how the stage design/set/props/costumes/lighting/ and choreography all came together to express the theme(s). I thought the main themes were about love and hate, but would love to hear what your thoughts are on this!

    Thank you.

  17. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Rebecca,

    The stage design was done by Daniel Osling. Shana wanted strong
    musical underscoring, and brought Paul James Prendergast from the
    Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she’s worked with him several times
    before – Paul James did our beautiful score. The actors were already
    cast by Amanda – all except Joseph Parks, who plays Mercutio and the
    Apothecary (interestingly, this double casting was perfect in the sense
    of both characters delivering to Romeo a kind of poison – the inherited
    ‘family poison’ [see Laura’s article in the program], and then the
    poison with which Romeo kills himself. Christine Crook’s costumes
    worked with the bare set to create a sense of contemporaneity – this is
    a modern production that highlights choice, not providence. (Actually
    it is built on the nexus between providence and choice, which makes it
    so intriguing)

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