Illuminating Shakespeare Rep

Each spring, the third-year drama students perform two Shakespeare plays in repertory (May 9-19), leaving lesser mortals to wonder, how do they manage to memorize all that Shakespeare and not get confused? Journal editor Susan Jackson interviewed three of the actors about the process of preparing for two very different parts in very different plays: Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew

Ali Sohaili plays Romeo’s friend Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and Grumio, a servant in The Taming of the Shrew.

There are some basic differences between these characters: one is old and one is young, so there’s a difference of physicality and even in their vocal rhythms. Mercutio’s a somewhat bipolar young man who’s grappling with sexual identity and all kinds of things. It’s exhausting, the amount of energy and focus you put into that. And the dying. Dying is tiring. Grumio is fun, but being a servant is difficult for its own reasons. I’m kind of hunched over and getting beaten up all the time, so that can be tiring too. 

Grumio’s lines are so literal. He’s not the brightest guy in the world, and he’s a little devious. He uses a lot of monosyllabic words, so anytime he uses multisyllabic words, you know that’s a big deal, even if it doesn’t seem like a very important word. He also uses the wrong words at certain times, which gives you insight into his character. 

One pattern that I find cool with Mercutio is that he uses the words “I” and “eye” a lot—the man’s kind of obsessed with himself. The more you see these patterns, the more you realize that you can make choices that probably are closer to what Shakespeare intended. 

I was here during spring break building the Globe [the set for both plays]. I love working with my hands. But to build the set that you’re going to perform on—you don’t get that opportunity too much. On our breaks, I would look up and imagine standing up there onstage with the seats full of people. 

Katharine Robinson plays Katharina (Kate) in The Taming of the Shrew and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet.

More than anything it’s trying to figure out the differences and nuances between these two characters, because they’re both pretty quick and hot-tempered and on the attack. 

Shakespeare is so specific with his word choice. For each character, I ask, why do I use these words? A lot of that comes out in terms of how characters use images. Some, like Romeo, live in flowery images. Whereas Tybalt doesn’t come up with imagery. And Kate tends not to use a lot of metaphors or imagery either, although she does use a lot of word play. And when the rhythm is stretched or there’s an extra beat or a missing beat, you realize, oh, there’s something there. 

To me Shakespeare is really easy to memorize, I think because of the way the text scans. And he gives you a lot of the thoughts in the language—it’s not like modern texts a lot of the time, when you might have a thought that you have to connect eight different ways before you get to what you say. And it’s also so rhythmical and musical, which really helps. 

I haven’t said the wrong line in the wrong play—yet! Sometimes I’m afraid I’m going to go into the wrong fight, but so far I’ve done O.K. 

The plays are so different, it’s kind of incredible. They’re almost opposite worlds in their ideas of honor and love. I mean every play ever pretty much deals with love. But it’s interesting how one writer can flip it and look at it in such different ways. Taming is a really hard story to reconcile. In this play you can’t win as a woman. 

Adam Farabee plays Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and a befuddled merchant in The Taming of the Shrew.

I’ve never started saying the wrong lines in the wrong play, but there’ll be moments when I’ll say, “wait, is that the line that I say when I’m the merchant, or is that Romeo?” And these words will start popping out of my head: forsooth, alack. 

The biggest difference between these characters is their energy. Romeo is a teenager, so whatever he believes is fully felt. When he’s in love with Rosaline [when the play begins], it’s the most painful, terrible thing ever that she doesn’t return his love. And then he sees Juliet and completely falls in love with her. It’s exhausting keeping up with the fullness of his passion. The merchant in Taming is extremely comedic—and he’s not the brightest one on the block. 

I get to use so many different sides of myself doing these two plays. I get to explore my whole range as an actor. But it’s not just about you and the part you happen to be playing, because we’re all given extreme challenges. It’s about how do I help tell this story that we’ve decided on as a group. That’s kind of freeing, because it becomes less about you and more about the work. 

I give myself half an hour for stretching and vocalizing so that I’m ready to go on without tension. And then I let myself start imagining, what has my character been doing this morning? Where have I been? Where am I going? I’m not thinking about technical things once I walk on stage.

In Romeo and Juliet, Adam Farabee’s Romeo kills Katharine Robinson’s Tybalt.

Adam: In Romeo and Juliet, we just have that really important scene— 

Katharine: —and then I die.

Adam: When you read the play, all that’s given to you is “they fight.” But the story that’s being told of that fight is huge—

Katharine: —especially for Tybalt. I think I have 10 lines in the play, but I’m in three scenes, two of which are fight scenes. 

Adam: I come into that scene with a strong reason [Juliet] I don’t want to fight, and I try to break up the first fight between Mercutio and Tybalt, but I get involved and that leads to all this terrible stuff happening. And while 15 lines ago I was saying, I’m not going to fight, then my best friend dies—

Katharine: Everything in this plays happens in a split second—and then everything changes.