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You Don’t Know This Romeo

Binghamton Theatre reinvents Shakespeare as Chinese opera.

“Assaulted” is not usually a word we associate with a pleasant evening at the theater, but that’s exactly how Binghamton Professor Don Boros describes his first experience with a traditional Beijing Opera performance in China. Assaulted… but in a good way.

Beijing Opera is a highly stylized Eastern tradition built around meticulously choreographed movements, aggressive music, extravagant costumes and martial arts.

“I think of total art in the traditional sense, of having all of the arts come together. And it does in [Beijing Opera],” says Boros. “It was the single most condensed form of expression that appealed to all of the senses. I knew that I had to return to find out more about it.”

With the help of a Chinese colleague, Boros launched a new summer study-abroad program called the “Total Art of Chinese Theatre,” sparking a fruitful collaboration with the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, China’s premier professional acting school.

Chinese actors have come to Binghamton to stage two plays and give a Beijing Opera workshop to theatre students. Binghamton professors have also gone to China to teach jazz dance at the National Academy. In 2007, the two countries announced their most ambitious project yet, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in the style of traditional Beijing Opera.

Boros says Shakespeare’s tragedy was the perfect fit for the cross-cultural experiment. “That there’s a good bit of physicalization in Romeo and Julie, including a number of fights, makes it fit very nicely with the kind of stories that are depicted in Beijing Opera.”

The spring 2008 production was performed entirely by Binghamton students under the direction of Chen Lincang, one of the most famous theater directors in China. In place of long soliloquies and asides were slow, dramatic entrances (sometimes as long as two minutes for a single character), sharply punctuated music and painstakingly precise movements. The story even underwent an adjustment. In the Beijing Opera version, the lovers are reunited after death for a marriage in the spirit world.

With the Beijing Olympics around the corner, and China making front-page headlines every day, it’s the kind of meaningful cultural exchange that students and professors dream about. “We’ve really come to know these people,” says Boros of his Chinese collaborators. “It’s not just ‘a place with some people over there.’ Through this exposure, the Chinese culture and way of life is something that’s now really very personal.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08