Perhaps one of the most well-known pieces of English literature in history, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has been adapted for many stages since time immemorial. Yet theatre students never fail to incorporate curious twists to their adaptations.
From Feb. 16 to 18, Merely Players, Vassar’s Shakespearean theater organization, and Vassar On Tap, the college’s only tap-dancing group, put on a special event: Tap dancing “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Cassidy Nealon ’19. The show was performed at 8 p.m. in UpC on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with an immense turnout on all three days.
Vassar On Tap has proven to have a formidable presence on campus. The organization continues to flourish with more and more dancers coming to tap along each year. Their collaboration in “Romeo and Juliet” illustrates the club’s longevity at Vassar, and the endurance of tap dancing as a whole..
The show resembled a musical in many ways, with tap dancing scenes assimilated into the larger plot. Despite being a tragedy, the director decided to put a comedic spin on the play. As a special event, the show’s run time was fairly short, around one and a half hours, so Nealon distilled the original script of the play down to its most important events, as well as looked for scenes into which tap dancing could easily be integrated..
Furthermore, the show is set in the 1920s, calling for some fairly modern costume choices. Romeo sported a vibrant red beanie while Mercutio, his best friend, complemented this with some rouge lipstick of his own.
The play started off with an evocative tap dancing piece with the show’s entire tap ensemble, and, from there, dove right into the plot. For the majority of the show, the mood adopted a light-hearted tone, with ample comic relief provided throughout the production, particularly whenever Mercutio appeared on stage. From lewd jokes in Shakespearean language to a fumbling, alcoholic priest who gives rather terrible advice and an excessively frivolous Lady Capulet, the audience was chuckling consistently during the performance.
In fact, the show portrayed some of the deaths comically toward the end as well, drawing laughs from the viewers even at Juliet’s grave. Julie Sandler ’20, who played Juliet, joked, “During Thursday’s show, people were laughing hysterically during a scene where, like, four people died, which is quite uncommon. We really made this piece our own.”
While overall amusing, the actors still conveyed the beauty of some of the deeper moments, even in the dances. The second piece was an elegant and formal dance party at Lady Capulet’s house involving the tap ensemble, while the third one was a jazzy and upbeat couple dance between Romeo and Juliet as soon as they decided to get married.
Yet as tragedy loomed towards the end of the play, the final tap piece, “Juliet’s Breakdown,” was moving, performed to haunting French music. It involved angry, fast taps, with beats and movements spinning out of control to reflect Juliet’s mental state.
The show’s choreographer and member of On Tap Ellena Nador ’18 explained some of these choices. She commented, “I made sure to choreograph specific steps into the dances that are associated with the 1920s, the time period in which the show is set. I tried to create a specific mood within each dance that corresponded to the scenes surrounding it. For example, in Juliet’s breakdown scene, the tappers enter after Juliet has become drunk. She is scared and confused, and so the tappers play off of this by circling around her, dragging her around and tapping furiously.”
Yet comedy and tragedy are hardly an easy blend, which is expressed by the performers. “I struggled with perfecting some of the iconic Juliet lines. I felt the pressure to live up to them, yet, given the comedic aspect of the show, I found it hard to do that without making a mockery of it,” Sandler explained.
Livia Bartels ’20, who played Romeo, expressed a similar sentiment : “The rehearsals were so much fun, and even though this is a tragedy, we’ve played with the genre to make the show really entertaining and easy-going. So I struggled with making some of the really serious elements comedic. It’s challenging to bring humor into grim moments like, say, when you’re killing people on stage. It was also difficult to switch into a very somber attitude towards the end of the play, after being in such a high-energy place for so long.”
The show was a real success, but more importantly, the community that this cast created for themselves within just a couple of weeks of rehearsal was truly inspiring. Sandler, Bartels and Nador all emphasized that their favorite part about this experience was getting to work with such talented people who meshed really well together and whom they might not have otherwise met. Bartels added, “Give a shout out to the production team for me. They were absolutely amazing. They coordinated everything, and we couldn’t have done it without them.”
This collaboration between Merely Players and Vassar on Tap was a true feat, reflected in the dynamism of many of the scenes. As Nador reflected, “My goal was to incorporate the dance pieces into the show as naturally and cohesively as possible. Usually when I choreograph for Vassar On Tap shows, each dance is independent. So getting to choreograph within the context of a plot was really cool. However, this was also definitely the biggest challenge since, after all, Shakespeare does not normally involve tap dancing!”