Juliet of the lovelorn

A unique production beginning this weekend explores letters written to "Juliet Capulet."

Juliet (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Have you ever wanted to write a letter to Juliet, the young heroine of Shakespeare's tragedy? If you answered yes, don't feel ashamed. You're not alone. Thousands of people have written letters to Juliet; countless letters addressed to Juliet Capulet pour into Verona, Italy, every year. Starting this weekend, your inner voyeur can get a glimpse of them when Romeo's S ance opens at the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater in Neve Tzedek. The production - part musical, part dance and part play - is an interpretive performance of a song cycle based on these epistles. Dr. Atay Citron, the chair of the Department of Theater at Haifa University and the play's director and creator, has staged the entire show as a s ance in which the spirits of the different authors are summoned. Juliet's tomb rests in a monastery in Verona. Or, at least since the turn of the last century, an animal trough there has been considered her tomb. And for about as long, visitors have deposited notes there, sticking them to the wall in a way that resembles the prayers left at the Western Wall. Following a 1936 film version of the play, tourism soared and letters began to pour in. A custodian was appointed to watch the tomb. Ettore Solimani not only planted a rose bush and willow tree by the tomb and taught songbirds to land on visiting women's shoulders, he also began answering the letters. His responses took the form of letters of consolation to the jilted and letters of encouragement to the lovelorn. After several decades, Solimani retired and was replaced by the Juliet Club (www.julietclub.com), which continued collecting and answering the letters. This strange and poetic phenomenon came to the attention of rocker Elvis Costello and so captivated the musician that he devoted an entire album to it. The Juliet Letters, a 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, is a complex and moving mix of contemporary lyrics inspired by the letters and chamber music. Though by no means a commercial success, the album inspired quite a number of people, among them Citron. "I fell in love with the music years ago," he says. "I knew that there was something there that could be added to it, but just wasn't sure what it was." Then he met the Israeli Contemporary Quartet. "These four lovely young women play contemporary chamber music in a unique way," Citron says. "It makes music lively again, not museum pieces." The concept started developing in his head and he got permission from Costello to use the songs. Taking many liberties with the material, including translating the songs into Hebrew and sculpting them into a plot, he created his show. All he needed was a strong male lead to counterbalance the women. He found it in an unlikely place: Tomer Sharon, a comedian nicknamed "Tomash" famous from the Israeli version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? Not known for his voice, he sings the lyrics accompanied by the quartet. But this is no ordinary performance of chamber music. The four women of the prize-winning quartet will also sing and dance and act and interact with Tomash. They, in effect, play the spirits opposite Tomash. If it sounds unusual to you, perhaps you are starting to get a good sense of what it is. Citron envisions it as "a new kind of project." "It is totally like something that hasn't been seen before," he says. "It does have a plot, but it is not traditional. There's no dialog. It's all songs, but it's not a musical." Adaptations of Romeo and Juliet are something of a clich in this part of the world, with some people describing Jews and Arabs as modern day Montagues and Capulets. Citron believes that this clich has a nucleus of truth but stresses that the famous couple do not play a prominent role in his show. They merely provide the resonance, the echo of love and premature death. The letters themselves are quite contemporary. One, for instance, is written from a young female soldier serving in Iraq. Another is from an old professor who claims he eschewed romance and that he has no regrets. More than anything, Romeo's S ance is probably best seen as a meditation on love and death. "All the songs are about death," Citron came to realize after working with them. "Some are about love. But all of them, with no exception, are about death." Sound gloomy? Citron insists it isn't. In some cases, the spirits summoned in the letters are actually quite funny. The play is something of a s ance or resurrection for Citron himself, he notes. Though he has kept busy teaching and running the Acre Alternative Theater Festival, this will be the first play he has directed in 18 years. In making his choice of material, he may have unwittingly tapped into the popular zeitgeist. Unbeknownst to him, Letters to Juliet, a collection of real letters, is being published in November in America. May 5, 6, 7, 14 and 15; Suzanne Dellal Center, Rehov Yehieli 5, Neveh Zedek, Tel Aviv, (03) 510-5656. Romeo's S ance will also be showing at Jerusalem's Hama'abada in July.