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Wherefore Arts Now? At Middlesex Community College’s New Theater Complex

December 3, 2018

A fight scene is played out on Saturday in Middlesex Community College's presentation of "Romeo and Juliet." SUN / David H. Brow

LOWELL -- A well-known Shakespearean masterpiece this weekend introduced Greater Lowell audiences to a very contemporary and bright performing arts space with a captivating portrayal of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Middlesex Community College inaugurated the Richard and Nancy Donahue Family Academic Arts Center with four performances of Shakespeare’s tragedy about teenage love.

The arts center is housed in what was once the Rialto Theatre and before that the Boston & Maine Railroad Depot. Stepping into a brightly lit lobby, theater-goers quickly realize the Central Street building has shed its 19th century origins and embraced the 21st century.

The performance would not have been possible in any of the previous spaces where MCC’s actors worked.

Said Director Karen Oster, “I had always wanted to do “Romeo and Juliet,” but we had never been able to because we didn’t have enough ceiling height for the swordplay in our old space.”

Arts Center Manager Pete Waldron concurred. “We’ve had some really difficult space in the past,” he said. That included using the former Chevy’s nightclub on East Merrimack Street.

The actors took full advantage of the new proscenium stage for the swordplay, and their adroit use of the side aisles made for smooth transitions between entrances and exits.

Even a new stage brings challenges when performing Shakespeare, however. Oster explained, “I knew that I wanted (the play) to appeal to an audience that may or may not have had experience with Shakespeare--and, for those who did not, I wanted them to understand the words, and I paid special attention to the pacing and continuity.”

The actors added their touches by using body language to make Shakespeare’s puns and bawdiness clear to the audience. Elizabethans loved puns and were not shy about sex and bodily functions.

However, the length of the Bard’s plays can be discouraging for modern audiences if played in full. “Therefore, I needed to cut the text in order to fit within the two hours. A lot of times Shakespeare today is not done in entirety for those reasons,” Oster said.

The performers brought different depths of experience to their performances, but all displayed a commitment to their craft.

Elizabeth Cormier, whose Juliet showed vulnerability and determination, has been acting since she was in junior high school -- “about eight years,” she said.

The weekend marked her first go at a Shakespearean play. “I was definitely intimidated. I had never done Shakespeare before and this is probably his most famous play.

“I felt a lot of pressure with this being the inaugural production for the theater, but Karen really made sure we knew exactly what we were saying and doing and that we felt comfortable with the language. We really couldn’t have done it without her. It was a wonderful challenge and I’m now in love with Shakespeare because of it!”

Thomas Carnes, who played Romeo, said he had “not much (acting experience). And even at that, I only have been in comedic roles. I have no prior experience to portraying anything serious on stage. This was sort of an adventure for me, being Romeo and all.”

Those who are familiar with the Elizabethan era will know that women were not allowed to act. Men played women’s parts. That historical fact makes one departure in Oster’s casting decisions noteworthy. Women were cast as two of Romeo’s confidantes. Jade Gordon played Benvolia (formerly Benvolio), and Amber Namery played Balthasa (formerly Balthasar).

Elizabethans would have found this departure strange. But times have changed.

Me thinks, the Bard would have approved of their performances and the performances of the entire cast.

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