Director Allegra Libonati Finds Fresh Insights in 'Romeo and Juliet'

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday July 20, 2017

When Steven Maler, artistic director of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, decided not to direct this summer's production of "Romeo and Juliet" on the Boston Common, he turned to Allegra Libonati, who had recently completed a stint as a resident director at the American Repertory Theater where she worked closely under the guidance of the company's artistic director Diane Paulus. What may have prompted his decision to hire Libonati was her arresting staging of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" at the Boston Lyric Opera last fall. Or her ample experiences over the years of staging plays and musicals (including "Romeo and Juliet") at the Summer Theatre of New Canaan in Connecticut.

For Libonati it offers the opportunity to return to a play that she has staged twice before. Her production, which continues at the Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common through August 6, will certainly exhibit the skills she's developed over the years as a member of Tut'Zanni Company, a six-member troupe that uses the conventions of Commedia dell'Arte to comment on contemporary life and issues. EDGE spoke to Libonati recently for a conversation about her technique, working outdoors and how Shakespeare fits into today's world.

Watching the play blossom

EDGE: How did you get involved with Commonwealth Shakespeare?

Allegra Libonati: I have been living in Boston for nine years. And I have been working at the American Repertory Theater as an artistic associate and as a resident director. I just left working there, but I still live here in Boston and have always admired Commonwealth Shakespeare and the excellent productions that they do. I directed "The Rake's Progress" earlier this year at Boston Lyric Opera, and because of that, I may have gotten on Steve's radar. He needed a director for this summer. It is the first year he's not directing the outdoor Shakespeare in 20 years, so I was very excited to get the call because it is a dream of mine to direct outdoors Shakespeare. I absolutely love it and have done a lot of it in my past work. He called and said that he needed a director for "Romeo and Juliet." I happened to have the summer available, so it fit in perfectly.

EDGE: What challenges do you face with the production?

Allegra Libonati: One thing that has been really interesting is that we set it in the time period, so the process has been uncovering it with the actors. And it has been absolutely incredible to watch the play blossom and open up as you start to work on it. What is endlessly fascinating is that the words, the characters, the story keep opening up to a deeper expression of themselves. It is similar to working on a Stravinsky opera where you keep uncovering these details from what's there on the page.

I think a challenge also is thinking about how to make it be as heard as possible because often times people feel that the language is alienating and they don't understand it or grasp the story. For us we are trying to make the story as clear as possible, as thrilling as possible; make the characters and relationships real and based in love, and investigate the families and the friendships. And from that place to see how human emotions can flare and cause rage and cause violence and cause passion and cause sorrow and cause extreme joy and extreme love. "Romeo and Juliet" is a play that explores all the passions to their extremes, so that's what we're looking at.

EDGE: Is it daunting to approach such a familiar play?

Allegra Libonati: You know, I have directed "Romeo and Juliet" twice - this is my third time. It is daunting in its scope, for sure, and what it is trying to express. But the fact that it is done a lot, I think that's an asset. I think with people coming in with a baseline understanding of it allows the audience to look deeper into the play. So I think that the familiarity and the fact that everyone has seen the movies and the different expectations make the play more familiar and friendly. And also something you might take your children or your whole family to makes it more accessible in a good way.

Serious and intelligent

EDGE: What were you looking for in casting the leads?

Allegra Libonati: Well, "Romeo and Juliet," to me they are both incredibly serious and intelligent characters. They are the children of these two families that people underestimate in what they're capable of and how they feel. I was looking for two performers that are, first of all, incredibly facile with the language because they speak a lot and there is a lot of very fast turns and virtuosic acting that is required to make these two characters spring off the page.

I was also looking for two people that could be believable as two teenagers who are deadly serious but are not being taking seriously in the world of adults. They both have very deep souls, and I think we found two incredible performers in John Zdrojeski and Gracyn Mix. And there is the connection. You have to believe them - you have to see that the love that happens between them is real. You get to see love manifest on stage. We needed two people that could go there and do that and experience that in front of all of us is really required. If you don't think they're in love, there is no story. So I felt that finding two actors that are deep, serious and very committed and intelligent, as well as facile with the language, and we found them in John and Gracyn.

EDGE: How did they arrive at that chemistry?

Allegra Libonati: I think through the rehearsal process - it is a microcosm if you will. It is a shared experience that we all go through. There are certain exercises that we can do where actors can bring themselves to a role so that the audience can appreciate the real individuals who are playing the roles. So the audience can see their vulnerabilities; see their striving. Also part of the rehearsal process is for the actors to develop a mutual respect and admiration for each other as performers. That's the beginning -- and that's for all the characters and their relationships. All the relationships have to be based in a reality. I always try to let people show their best work.

And another way is through the script. It is through the words, I think, that you can have the characters really connect with each other. That is what resonates. Actors that believe that there is something at stake in the scene to make you feel that the relationships are real. That's how we work. We just let it grow and see how these people interact with each other, then push them to a place where they are more vulnerable and intimate. That allows the audience to see that intimacy. I feel that it has to cook. As a director, it can be likened to cooking. You have to slowly cook it and let it grow itself so that there is something real in the essence of it.

Working outdoors

EDGE: You have directed numerous productions at the Summer Theatre of New Canaan in Connecticut. Does working in an outdoor setting affect the way you stage something?

Allegra Libonati: Definitely, starting with the design and logistics. There are a lot of variables, for instance, it might rain. Plus that it is in the park, the sound element is highly important. Sometimes people will come by and just listen. They can't see the stage but can hear it. So the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company makes sure that sound is an important design element so you can hear everything clearly. For the staging, you need to be even more specific in isolating where the focus is so that if you are close, you can see the intimate, but if you are far away you can get the story in bigger pictures. You need clear story telling like it is a picture book. If there is a moment when, say, rage erupts in a character, the sound and light design enhances those emotional surges.

Bold choices and clear moments is a great way to deal with working outdoors. But all of it - from rain to bugs to noise - is taken into consideration. And there is much in the text about the heavenly bodies and the Earth and the sky and the moon and the stars that we are working into the production. We actually built the design into the ground with the grass coming up onto the stage so it looks like the set looks like an ancient monument being overtaken by nature again. We are trying to use all the ideas of nature and being outside to our benefit. It also can become a hindrance, but it is all part of the fun. It keeps it very alive whether you like it or not. It is out of your control at times, which makes it very exciting.

EDGE: You are a member of a theatrical group called the Tut'Zanni Theatre Company. Who are they and what do they do?

Allegra Libonati: Tut'Zanni is a Commedia dell'Arte theater ensemble. There are six of us and we all live in different parts of the world and we come together twice a year to investigate masque performance. A lot of the techniques of masque archetypes of traditional Commedia dell'Arte to send up the world we live today and enlighten. Commedia dell'Arte is a lot about injustices and abuses in the political system, but with comedy. So it's an ancient form of sketch comedy but with a really incredible technique that uses masks, which makes it resonate with a large audience even without sound and light. It is looking at some old principles of theater to make it very current and modern.

EDGE: At the American Repertory Theater you have also worked quite a bit with its artistic director Diane Paulus. What have you learned from working with her?

Allegra Libonati: Endless amounts. She is an incredible artist and mentor and director. Her ability to see and identify the heartbeat of a piece is something that I learned from her. She has an uncanny ability to see what's important and what's the human inside of a story and to explore that in the most gorgeous and interesting and truthful way. I really learned how to be specific with her.

Reinventing Shakespeare

EDGE: Network and cable television have recently embraced Shakespeare in a big way with two series. ABC has "Still Crossed," which looks at the aftermath of the blood feud between the Montagues and Capulets after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. And AMC has "Will," a highly fictionalized account of Shakespeare's life when he moved from Stratford to London. What do you think this fascination with Shakespeare in pop culture is coming from?

Allegra Libonati: Shakespeare was very subversive when he was writing - he got around what he was allowed and not allowed to say on stage. Probably now there is an incredible need for people to use classic stories to speak out on what's happening in the world today. To speak out about how they feel about our political leaders, the state of humanity, what is our responsibility to each other. He has always been speaking to all the different strata of society. But it is a good question, this resurgence of Shakespeare. Is it that we are looking to a genius to reference what is happening in our lives today?

EDGE: Well, the recent, highly controversial production of "Julius Caesar" in Central Park did just that by simply putting Caesar in a suit with an overlong tie and coloring his hair orange. What do you think of restaging Shakespeare in contemporary terms?

Allegra Libonati: I think that is what is so incredible about working with this material. What we have with Shakespeare's plays is that you can reinvent them and put them smack in our moment to better understand who we are. That is a way for us to reflect and mirror and understand better who we are using these words again because these words ring true in different ways. He was really able to articulate themes and ideas that we are still trying to figure out. I wish I had seen that production, but I think that was an incredible way to use this play for the benefit of society. Our approach is to set it up to look at the play at the time it was written, so we really are looking at the Italian Renaissance and the blood feud between the Montagues and Capulets that lasted hundred of years, and playing that. However all of the issues of today are right at our fingertips, so the audience can make those connections. So the way we are staging it cannot help but have modern day references, so that's our approach. So I hope we are using the play to better understand ourselves.

EDGE: What's next for you?

Allegra Libonati: I am going to be the assistant director on an opera that will be at BAM being directed by Diane Paulus called "Crossings." It premiered at the ART. I am helping with the remounting in September. After that, I am directing the Verdi opera "Falstaff" at Opera Omaha in January, then "King Lear" at Wayne State University. So it's a big Shakespeare year for me.

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's "Romeo and Juliet" continues through August 6 at the Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common. For more information, visit the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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