Love and war

KU theater students learn 'Romeo and Juliet' is as much about swordplay as it is about Shakespearean wordplay

Leslie Bennett doesn't care about star-crossed love, not now. Leslie Bennett is handing out her weapons, and she wants them used and used well.

She carries her weapons -- all sparkling and deadly sharp swords and daggers -- in a huge plastic box. It's silver and ribbed and padded on the inside, something that might carry a trombone or a bazooka.

She grabs the swords from the box and hands them out one by one.

Past Event

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

  • Friday, November 12, 2004, 7:30 p.m.
  • Murphy Hall, 1530 Naismith Drive, Lawrence
  • All ages

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"OK," she says, smiling. "Now we're going to brawl."

But what ever happened to the great love story? This is "Romeo and Juliet," right?

Sure, sure, but for Bennett, the movement coach and assistant fight director for the upcoming University Theatre production, and the actors of the KU theater department, the play is as brutal as it is heartrending and tragic.

So for the past two months, Bennett has worked with the actors to help prepare them for a performance that will have as many cuts, croises and binds as it does soliloquies and couplets.

Time-honored test

The preparation starts, as it must, with the environment the actors will perform in on the stage.

When the play opens on Friday, the set will look like castle walls and balconies and the trappings of Italian renaissance life.

But now those castle walls lay idle, just monstrous lengths of foam bricks painted tan and glued to plywood outstretched on the ground backstage. And on stage, those balconies are just big wooden boxes and jolting arrangements of steps that clack when stepped on.

"You can feel it when you walk on it," Bennett says, stomping around the steps. "It's a solid piece of construction."

She walks over to the wall and pushes it.

"When the fight choreographer came in, he said, 'Is this wall strong? Can I slam somebody up against it?'"

And, as Bennett demonstrates, it IS that strong. And he DID slam people up against it.

Which is the actors' job now, during, for example, the first act's melee -- an all-out brawl between the houses of Capulet and Montague. It's a scene that involves all of what the actors have learned. It's swordplay and combat, a true test of an actor's physical skills onstage.

That test of skill is often why university theater departments perform "Romeo and Juliet," says KU English lecturer Steve Evans, who specializes in Shakespeare.

"It's an excuse to get up on stage an do things, to stage a convincing fight scene," he says.

Staying sharp

Christopher Wheatley, Lawrence senior, plays Romeo when the curtain rises but is the resident fight captain during rehearsals. He is a big, bulky Romeo, who stands with his hands on his hips and gives off an aura of authority.

"I help with the training and co-teaching," he says. He studied stage combat for a year in New York and now serves as a teaching assistant for Intro to Stage Combat, a class Bennett teaches.

And the teaching process is key for the actors, Bennett says. Because if they don't follow the exact instructions of both her and nationally known fight coach D.C. Wright, who spent several weekends at KU helping the actors, the violence could turn very real.

"There are so many things to learn, to incorporate the physical and acting and safety," Bennett says.

Bennett knows, and preaches to her actors, that one forgotten parry, one foot too close with the sword, and it's all blood and gashes -- and a thoroughly ruined play.

All in the wrist

"Why won't you do it?" Bennett screams at the stage.

She's yelling for two reasons, really. First, one of the actors won't keep his sword down during a long, prodding cut. It keeps rising too high, near the face.

"This is their money," she says, drawing a circle around her face with her finger. "We don't go anywhere near the face."

Plus, there are kinks in the movement as the actors work out a duel from Act 1.

If one slight movement is unnatural, one step is not the step someone would actually make if they were in a swordfight, the whole thing looks fake, and the story is ruined for the audience.

Now, Aaron Champion, the Overland Park senior who plays Mercutio, is doing his best to get stabbed.

Not just stabbed, but convincingly stabbed, so that the audience, from the front row to the furthest seat, believes that Dylan Hilpman's Tybalt just dug his sword into Mercutio's guts.

"You've got to make it pop," Wheatley yells from the front row. "It's in the wrist. It's all wrist and elbow."

Hilpman's sword, when it slides along Champion's side, looks like it's doing just that. What Wheatley wants is the jerky motion of piercing flesh.

"It has to be convincing," Wheatley says. Hilpman, a Lawrence junior, practices the motion again and again. "If not, the story is over."

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