Hartford Stage Smitten with Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare

Hartford Stage’s artistic director, Darko Tresnjak, was in elementary school when he saw Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet for the first time, and it wasn’t on stage.

“We were in a grade school and watched the movie with Olivia Hussey in a Washington, D.C., theater,” he recalls, referring to the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production starring the actress and Leonard Whiting in the lead roles. “And we all squealed at the nude scene.”

Decades later, Tresnjak, known for his love of The Bard's works, has brought the classic love story to his Hartford Stage, a production he says is his tribute to Italy.

“It’s the same text, but the setting is quite different,” says Tresnjak, who has directed several Shakespeare productions at Hartford Stage since he arrived in 2012. “The setting is after World War II, after the strikes and in the rubble,” he continues. “It is a play for me personally that makes sense because there are angry families and an economy collapsing.

“It is a true love story and I finally felt it was the time to bring it here.”

The stage production, which continues through March 20 and starts at $25 for tickets, tells the tale of the intense feud between the Montague and Capulet families. Set in Verona, the production stars Kaliswa Brewster and Chris Ghaffari as the young archetypal lovers whose ultimate deaths reconcile their feuding families.

“I am very excited about this one,” Tresnjak says about his production that opened just days before Valentine’s Day. “It is a terrific acting company with stage veterans and wonderful young actors. Ghaffari is still in the Yale School of Drama, and Brewster is absolutely lovely, appearing here before in our La Dispute and Macbeth.”

Tresnjak has proven himself as a hands-on director when it comes to his productions.

“I choreographed it, adding the dancing myself,” says the award-winning Tresnjak. “I also designed the sets.

“Sleeping is overrated, and the same for eating and exercising,” he says. “Work is what keeps me going.”

Asked about his own favorite soliloquy from the play, which includes some of Shakespeare’s most well-known lines, like “parting is such sweet sorrow,” Tresnjak is quick to answer.

“I love the monologue when she is waiting for her Romeo,” he says, reciting:

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,

Towards Phoebus’ lodging: such a wagoner

As Phaethon would whip you to the west,

And bring in cloudy night immediately.

His affinity for the works of Shakespeare takes a step further this year as Hartford Stage prepares for its annual “Party in the Paint Shop” gala on March 19. This year’s theme is “Shakespeare in Bloom.”

“The décor will feature flowers and quotes about flowers from the works of Shakespeare,” says Tresnjak. He surprised everyone when he first arrived in Hartford also diving head first into the annual gala plans and transforming them from ho-hum fundraisers into theatrical experiences complete with acrobats, trapeze artists and more. “We want it to be all about spring,” he says, and wants everyone to wear something “in bloom,” like flowered ties and dresses and accessories.

Taking over as Hartford’s artistic director in 2011, Tresnjak’s previous critically acclaimed Shakespeare productions include Macbeth, also at Hartford Stage, Hamlet, Twelfth Night and The Tempest. In 2014, he won the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Best Direction of a Musical for the Broadway production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which debuted at Hartford Stage in 2012. Last year’s direction of The Killer at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience earned him an OBIE Award.

Tresnjak’s most recent play at Hartford Stage was Rear Window, and he is slated to direct the world premiere of the new musical Anastasia in May.

As for how he knows his production has been a success: “I know this sounds arrogant, but I know internally when I do well,” he says. “I have directed 100 shows, and know when I have satisfied myself. For me, it is an internal thing. I just know.”

860-527-5151; hartfordstage.org

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