Romeo & Juliet deconstructed at Bard

Anne Gridley of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Romeo and Juliet on stage at Bard (photo by Jaques-Jean Tiziou)

Anne Gridley of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Romeo and Juliet on stage at Bard (photo by Jaques-Jean Tiziou)

Remember the kids’ party game Telephone? It’s reportedly played all over the world; but depending on where you grew up, you may know it as Gossip, Grapevine, Operator, Secret Message, Pass the Message or the now-politically-incorrect Chinese Whispers.

Whatever the name, it works the same: Player One whispers a phrase or short sentence into the ear of Player Two, softly enough that no one else can hear it. Player Two whispers it to Player Three, and so on and on until the message comes to the end of the line. The final player recites aloud what he or she recalls hearing – at which point hilarity generally ensues, since the finished product bears little or no resemblance to the original utterance.

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Telephone is used by teachers to train hyperactive kids to use their “inside voices” and to illustrate the potential harm in gossip. It’s even used to help teach people pronunciation in a foreign language. But mostly, people have been doing it for ages because it’s silly and fun. There have even been international Telephone games spanning six continents.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma – an innovative, Obie-winning art and performance group that is, contrary to its name, based in New York City – has taken the concept of Telephone to a higher level of absurdism. To create a new play, its principals began calling friends on the telephone and asking them to explain the plot of Romeo and Juliet in a few sentences. They recorded and transcribed the phone calls, then turned a series of those transcripts of garbled Shakespeare, verbatim, into theatrical vignettes for the production of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Romeo & Juliet to be performed this weekend in Theater Two of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College.

The series of three performances, plus the US premiere screening of a documentary about the avant-garde theater troupe, are the latest manifestation of an ambitious artist-in-residence program called Live Arts Bard (LAB) that began in 2012. That first year, LAB brought in punk cabaret singer Amanda Palmer do a residency, making a music video with Bard students; meanwhile, her husband, superstar fantasy author Neil Gaiman, taught a master class that ultimately led to his taking up a five-year faculty stint at the college.

Exposure to these hot talents is certainly a boon for Bard arts students; but the benefits also spill over into the broader community, providing opportunities to catch the likes of Nature Theater of Oklahoma without making the trek down to Manhattan. The group has described its creative mission as “making the work they don’t know how to make, putting themselves in impossible situations and working from out of their own ignorance and unease…to create an unsettling live situation that demands total presence from everyone in the room,” using “the ready-made material around us, found space, overheard speech and observed gesture.”

Shot during the group’s 21-day “takeover” of the Hebbel Theater in Berlin last summer, Nature Theater of Oklahoma: The Movie! will be screened this Saturday, February 22 at 2 p.m. in the Jim Ottaway, Jr. Film Center, located in the Avery Arts Center on the Bard campus. Admission is free, but reservations are required via the Fisher Center box office at (845) 758-7900.

The performances of Romeo & Juliet will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, February 21 and 22, with a 2 p.m. matinée on Sunday, February 23. A discussion with the artists – directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper and cast members Anne Gridley, Robert M. Johanson and Elisabeth Conner – will follow the Friday night show. General admission tickets cost $25 and are available at the Fisher Center box office at https://fishercenter.bard.edu or by calling (845) 758-7900.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma will return to campus in June 2014 to create Episode 7 of its acclaimed Life & Times series, commissioned by Live Arts Bard. Gridley, a Bard alumna (class of ’02), is already teaching in Bard’s Theater & Performance Program this semester.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Romeo & Juliet, Friday/Saturday, February 21/22, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, February 23, 2 p.m., $25, Theater Two, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts; Nature Theater of Oklahoma: The Movie! screening, Saturday, February 22, 2 p.m., free, Jim Ottaway, Jr. Film Center, Avery Arts Center; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu.

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