How the Chorus took Center Stage Theater: A single actor (( plays the Chorus and four other characters in 'Romeo and Juliet.' All five characters wear the same white suit.

February 02, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

These days, when director Irene Lewis talks to actor Robert Dorfman, she's really talking to five people.

And they are five very different people -- different occupations, different social classes, even different genders.

What ties them together is that they are characters in Lewis' production of "Romeo and Juliet" -- which opens Wednesday at Center Stage -- and that they share a purpose the director describes as "choral witness."

This idea came about because Lewis was intrigued by the play's opening speech, in which the classically inspired character of the Chorus gives away the plot, right down to the crux of the matter: "A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their lives."

"The whole play had a very Greek feeling. You're told at the beginning exactly what's going to happen," Lewis explained before a recent rehearsal. "I thought it would be interesting to have the person who told you take you through the play."

It's a concept Lewis has explored in other Center Stage Shakespeare productions -- "Pericles," in which the narrator, medieval poet John Gower, witnessed the play from the sidelines when he wasn't speaking, and "Twelfth Night," in which the clown, Feste (also played by Dorfman), remained on stage more often than required by the script, as if to point up the foolishness of the other characters.

The Chorus in "Romeo and Juliet" has only two speeches (the second of which comes at the start of the second act and is often cut). He will, however, have an increased presence because Lewis has also assigned Dorfman four other roles, which he plays in the same basic costume as the Chorus -- a modern white linen suit, in contrast to the Renaissance-inspired garb worn by the rest of the cast.

The four characters are: the servant who inadvertently tells Romeo about the party at which he meets Juliet; Friar John, who fails to deliver Friar Laurence's letter informing Romeo of the plan to reunite the lovers in the Capulet family tomb; the impoverished Apothecary, who sells Romeo poison; and Juliet's Nurse.

Though mostly small characters, they are all "fateful agents," Lewis feels, who show up at pivotal points and change the direction of the action.

"The way she chose them is [that they appear] in those very moments where, if you were watching a cheesy movie melodrama, the music would go: ba ba bum," explains dramaturg Catherine Sheehy, "the sort of plot twist, as Romeo turns to say, 'Who's that girl?', and the servant says, 'Oh, that's Juliet.' Ba ba bum. The worst news you could get. At those moments where fate takes a very obvious hand in the proceedings, the places where there are big orange cones in the road, those are the roles that Robert [Dorfman] has taken."

Reminder of inevitability

For Dorfman, the characters cut to the heart of the meaning of tragedy. "What's very important in tragedy is the sense of inevitability," he says. "This play has so much coincidence, there's a danger of it seeming like happenstance." Casting a single actor in these roles, he believes, will remind the audience of that inevitability.

Lewis also envisions Dorfman's character as a witness to fate, similar to the way Holocaust survivors often refer to bearing witness. With this in mind, the Chorus will watch some scenes, though he won't be on stage constantly.

The effect, the director continues, is not intended to be "folksy," in the sense of the Stage Manager in "Our Town." Instead, it should reinforce the innate theatricality of the play. To further reinforce this sense of artifice, the first six lines of the prologue are painted on the back wall of designer Michael Yeargan's set.

" 'Romeo and Juliet' is beautifully artificial in that theater is always artifice. Great tragedy is nothing like naturalism," says Sheehy. "It's conspicuously man-made, and Irene's [Lewis'] use of the Chorus highlights this artifice. The story of Romeo and Juliet is not: Oh, those wacky kids, if only they'd had better luck! There was no way for it to have worked out.

"Shakespeare was very boldly constructing a tragedy of circumstance," she says. "So that means both the playwright and the director have to stage those circumstances."

Extending the role of the Chorus by having one actor, who remains recognizable throughout, assume the guise of several pivotal characters is one way the production nudges those circumstances along.

Dorfman says he increasingly has come to feel the bond between his five characters: "The more I do it, the more I think it's the Chorus that's on stage." That's why he doesn't have major costume changes distinguishing the characters (though he does don a shawl for the Nurse).

Instead, the distinctions are made by transformations in his acting. "I just naturally become short as the serving man and destitute as the apothecary. I don't want to do characterizations," he explained during rehearsals. "As we're knitting it together, I realize it's all of a one."

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