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Marianna Bassham on Love and Vulnerability in a Contemporary ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Fernando Barbosa and Chloe McFarlane in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of "Romeo and Juliet."
Fernando Barbosa and Chloe McFarlane in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of "Romeo and Juliet." By Courtesy of Maggie Hall
By Vivienne N. Germain, Crimson Staff Writer

While working on “Romeo and Juliet,” Marianna Bassham reflected on the question, “Where do you look to for support?”

“What do you do if it’s not there?” she wondered.

A Boston-based theater artist, Bassham directs Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which runs until June 2. Shakespeare’s play is tragic and violent, but Bassham’s version is also empathetic, loving, and authentically tender, which reflects her personal approach to theater-making.

As an award-winning actor who has performed in dozens of productions, including “POTUS” at SpeakEasy Stage Company, and as an Assistant Professor of Theater at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Bassham’s theatrical experience is varied and robust. She made her directorial debut in 2018 and most recently directed SpeakEasy’s “The Band’s Visit” and “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” In a conversation with The Harvard Crimson, she discussed her current production, “Romeo and Juliet.”

“I think it feels very ‘now,’” she said.

Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy is over four centuries old, but Bassham aims to make her version feel fresh and relevant to the present day. Quoting an actor in the production, she said it “feels like working on a new play.” By cutting more than two-thirds of the lines from Shakespeare’s text, adding entirely new moments, and making bold artistic choices — like having an onstage actor perform live music throughout the play — Bassham found that her process developing the production often felt “more creative than interpretive.”

“I’ll just make the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that I think I would want to see, or try to make that,” she said. “It’s been rewarding, and I think a lot of the people who are working on the project are experiencing that, too.”

While interpreting the tragedy, Bassham was most intrigued by the characters’ relationships, particularly within family or between foes. Her production explores those relationships and finds love in surprising places. She believes that exploring relationships “in a contemporary way” makes the story feel more relatable than antiquated.

Bassham emphasizes relationships in “Romeo and Juliet” with the approach she consistently brings to her work: She searches for the love between characters.

As an educator, she helps her students discover that “there is love in every relationship.” As an actor, she considers love a generative force in character development.

“You start early in your career thinking everything is a fight, and ‘I don’t like you’ and ‘get out of my face,’” she said. “But actually, what happens if you say first, ‘I love you, but I really need you to change?’”

“Then it becomes a lot harder for your characters, but it’s more engaging to watch, and it’s much more engaging and easier to play with that,” she continued.

As the director of “Romeo and Juliet,” Bassham exercises the same philosophy.

“What if there’s a flip side to every antagonistic relationship in the play, which is, what if that was actually a loving relationship?” she asked. “If we can see that a little bit, then I think it makes the violence cost more.”

By conveying her ethos to the cast, Bassham led the actors toward discovering emotional complexity in their characters and between characters.

“There were relationships in this play that you might not initially interpret as love-rich,” she said. “But again, the actors found that.”

“The ethos of this project led this ensemble down interesting emotional paths,” she added.

Bassham emphasizes humane tenderness in every aspect of “Romeo and Juliet.” The set is primarily pink, including a pink floor treatment that she describes as “bleeding out,” and the costumes are in neutral tones. Bassham remarked that pink is “sexy,” “fresh and youthful,” and “raw and vulnerable and dangerous.” She cast young actors in most roles — even wise Friar Lawrence and authoritative Prince Escalus — to make dynamics between characters even more nuanced, revealing, and intriguing. She also explained that the violence relies on unique, ambitious movement choreography, staged entirely without weapons.

“There’s something very oddly intimate about the moments of violence and death in this play, even between antagonistic pairs,” she said.

Ultimately, Bassham’s work reaches into the complicated, intimate aspects of the authentic human condition. She draws from many influences, including actor Cate Blanchett and artist Cindy Sherman, who are not afraid to embrace the rawness of human experiences.

“They are brave about being ugly in service to fully embodying a character,” Bassham said.

She also admires directors Kimberly Senior, David Cromer, Bevin O’Gara, and Jenny Koons. These directors ask questions that Bassham asks herself as an actor, brings to actors she directs, and poses to her students.

“[Senior is] just like, ‘What would a person do?’” Bassham said. “To remember your personhood is really helpful.”

Through love, vulnerability, and the messiness of personhood, Bassham hopes that her production of “Romeo and Juliet” feels “immediate,” “visceral,” and “surprising.” She aims for Shakespeare veterans to find new moments in the play and experience familiar moments in different ways, and for young audiences to relate to the relationships and realize that “Shakespeare is not dusty.”

Ultimately, Bassham wants “Romeo and Juliet” to move audiences. She aspires for theatergoers, both seasoned and new, to feel the characters’ struggles, connect with their experiences, and empathize with them as people. She aspires for “Romeo and Juliet” to feel real.

“Theater makes me pay attention. It makes me lose time,” she said. “It makes my heart pound.”

Bassham’s work makes audiences’ hearts pound, too.

Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” runs at The Roberts Studio Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston through June 2.

—Staff writer Vivienne N. Germain can be reached at vivienne.germain@thecrimson.com.

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