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'Romeo y Julieta' takes a bilingual variation to a Shakespearean classic

Performance Dates and Times: Feb. 7–9, 14–16 | 7 p.m. and Feb. 10, 17 | 2 and 4 p.m.

Location: Nelke Theatre, Franklin S. Harris Fine Arts Center, BYU

Price: $5-8

Tickets: Available in person at the BYU Ticket Office in the Harris Fine Arts Center or Marriott Center, by phone at 801-422-2981 or online at byuarts.com

At the end of a dress-rehearsal performance of BYU’s “Romeo y Julieta,” a crew member asks the audience of 60 fifth-graders from a local Title I school what the source of the conflict between the Montagues and Capuletos might have been. A girl with a blond braid and shiny burgundy coat offers, “I think it’s a big misunderstanding — maybe because they speak different languages and had miscommunications.”

One of the BYU Young Company’s goals in offering a bilingual twist on Shakespeare’s classic is to explore themes of miscommunication and misunderstanding, said director Julia Ashworth.

“I felt a bilingual adaptation would provide opportunities to expand those moments in the play,” she said. “Introducing the Spanish-language and Latino cultures into the story I hoped would focus on multiculturalism and provide numerous access points for young and diverse community members to engage with this production.”

Ashworth estimates that a third of the play is in Spanish, and a lot of the conversations that happen between characters combine Spanish, English and Spanglish: “The idea is that this is like a true bilingual household,” she said.

To keep their target audience of 10- to 14-year-olds engaged, the play’s eight performers, seven of whom are fluent Spanish speakers, employ a number of nonverbal storytelling cues. “Anyone could come to the play and understand what’s going on,” Ashworth said. “Either you do or you don’t understand Shakespearian language, so it’s not much different trying to keep up with the Spanglish.”

As part of their prep, the cast and crew received guidance from José Cruz González, one of the nation’s most prolific Latin-American playwrights for young audiences. Among other tips, he offered feedback on how to best represent the show through music and stylized sounds.

“We are using music and sounds to represent the biggest moments of miscommunication that could have changed the fate of Romeo and Julieta had things been better articulated,” said assistant director Mariah Eames.

BYU’s Young Company is performing the play at BYU this week and next, and they’re also doing 20 tour visits to local elementary and middle schools throughout the month. After each school performance the team will stay to do theater workshops with students.

“This will hopefully be an opportunity to unpack some of the thematic issues from the play: bilingual households, language barriers, etc.,” said Ashworth. “We hope that this production builds a more diverse and inclusive audience as we try to expand the idea of who we are as a community and what we might become one day.”

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