Zeke Sulkes | Performer of the week
Inside the intimate space nestled within the Chopin Theatre basement, a group of four actors are putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet unlike any other. Sean Graney’s Romeo Juliet begins with elements from Shakespeare’s classic play and Felice Romani’s libretto for the opera I Capuleti e I Montecchi. Those are then put through a modern language filter and staged in what looks like someone’s basement in the ’70s, a space designed by the actors. Starring as Mercutio and Lord Capulet, Zeke Sulkes continues a streak of shows with Graney and the Hypocrites, a relationship that will take him to Boston this June when the Hypocrites remount their promenade production of Pirates of Penzance at the American Repetory Theater. A native of Rochester, New York, Sulkes fell in love with theater after his grandma took him to see Pirates of Penzance as a child, and he’s been performing ever since. Sulkes speaks to us about designing the show with his costars, the pros and cons of unorthodox staging, and his future with Gilbert & Sullivan.
Can you tell us a little bit about the design concept for Romeo Juliet? How did the actors become involved with the design?
We were all cast last summer, we all got the offer and took it. And right around when Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses was opening, which all four of us were in as well, Sean offered to us the opportunity to design the show as well. We all thought that would be a really cool challenge, a really cool way to collaborate. So over the months, up until we started rehearsals in April, we would meet once for the first couple months, then every month, then as the show approached rehearsal time, we’d meet once a week to have production meetings. Quickly we decided that intimacy and senses—romance and everything that everyone with a first date, including the awkwardness, would be part of this design.
We wanted to create an intimate space and one that was cozy and just good and romantic to be in. A sense of sensuousness, for lack of a better word; touch and smell and taste and everything. From there, our goal was set, and we decided very early it was going to be a tiny house. 40 audience members was the cap that we set, and we wanted it first to be even fewer people than that, but we have to sell enough tickets to make it viable. And then it was all about creating this sense of a hidden room inside a larger space, that was where it started and how it all came together.
What are some of the challenges of working with unorthodox staging, whether it’s promenade like Pirates of Penzance or the tight space of Romeo Juliet? What are the advantages?
I one of the tricky things about promenade in general is that the rehearsal room is not really an appropriate approximation. It’s a sandbox to play in, but then when you add the layers of promenade, the show needs to become something different than what it was to rise to that occasion and make the stage work in that way. The same thing with the tightness of Romeo Juliet. In the rehearsal room, we were doing it in an even smaller box. We’d play four square at every rehearsal, and then our stage was the four square court, which is smaller than the stage we have at the Chopin by a little bit. It’s tricky because it’s one thing to have sword fights in a rehearsal space where you know it’s supposed to be tight, but then when you know there’s going to be an audience member inches from your blade, it becomes something very different altogether. The tricky thing is just knowing that once you get to tech time, the show is going to change. It’s going to grow, it’s going to become something different than what it was. It’s not so much a hard thing so much as it is being open to that growth at the latter stage of that process.
And then the cool thing is, it’s awesome doing staging like Romeo Juliet. It’s such a tight space, and getting to know one-on-one all these audience members coming through the door, doing the show then becomes this really cool relationship. Something more hands-on, more like an offering to these people. Like serving tea or serving oranges, we get serve this play to these people. And to see audience reactions so, so closely, and to be a part of that, to be experiencing it just as much as they are, is a beautiful thing. Pirates, that promenade is a huge party in the same way that Romeo Juliet is trying to be an intimate first date experience. Pirates is just a joyous thing, and to experience that, with the gifts that audience members give you when they end up in the middle of the action, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s fun, and the fun bounces so kinetically between the audience and the performers. You can just feel it, it’s a big party. It’s awesome. The crazy, unorthodox way that Sean does things makes for an exciting—it makes it alive. I love a good proscenium staged show, and there’s all sorts of way to do kinetic theater, theater that’s alive. When you’re that close to people, it’s a joy.
What is Sean like as a director?
He’s awesome. Sean works unlike anyone else I know, and his vision is so strong. Ideas that seem crazy end up, a couple hours or a couple weeks down the line in rehearsal, becoming these beautiful images that somehow—who knows how that stuff will work. And Sean is hilarious. Romeo Juliet, Sophocles and Woyzeck, some of the plays I’ve done with him are dark, weird, upsetting things, but I’ve never laughed more in any rehearsal room than with Sean. Everyone is laughing. When things are popping, it’s just the best vibe ever. And Sean is also awesome become he is willing to get harsh when it needs to happen. It’s not harshness on a personal level. He’s willing to, and very ready to call something out when it’s not good. Including his own stuff. Everyone’s ideas are welcome, and achieving the best idea, achieving the best thing is always the first priority. The way you get to that is both fun and harsh, but it’s awesome. It’s a fun, fun thing to be in. And we get to play four square and do yoga together and rock out to music. It’s a good time.
Did the adaptation change at all during the rehearsal process?
It changed a lot. A lot, a lot. We got the first draft of the script last summer. And the rehearsal draft that we started with was from Valentine’s Day. And every single day the script changed, especially once we started doing runs. We began doing full runs about a week in to rehearsals, and starting then, script changes came in every day right up until opening. It was a lot of changes about how much Shakespeare do we include, how much to include the audience, to take things out to the audience and give them moments of interaction. The script was a completely living, breathing thing. That’s often the case with Sean’s stuff. Especially the things he has written. Pirates he kept pretty much as he had, the adaptation stuck from the beginning. But anything else, scripts change a lot. And it’s cool, because it’s a reflection of who’s in the room. He’s trying to make the best script for the show that’s going to happen, which might be different from the intent initially.
Moving on to Pirates of Penzance, that show is going to Boston in June. What is that process like? Have rehearsals started?
We’re about to begin rehearsals. We head into rehearsals this coming weekend, and then we rehearse pretty much every day for the next two weeks until we go to Boston. It’s going to be really cool, and I know everyone is just thrilled to get to share this with some new audience members and get some more exposure for the show. It was definitely a labor of love for everybody, and a really intense process. The first time around, making that show come to life was hard for everybody. So everyone’s just thrilled that it’s happening. It feels like a culmination of all this hard work. And also an opportunity for it to grow. We’re only in Boston for a week. The festival is called the Emerging America Festival, and it’s going to be cool. Who knows, but I’m sure everyone would love some kind of extended run or get to rock out with the Pirates in as many places for as long as possible because it’s so much fun to do. And it’s going to be fun to spend a week vacation performing and enjoying summer in Boston.
Pirates is coming back next season in repertory with The Mikado. Is it going to be the same cast doing both shows?
The casting is still coming together. As far as I know, they sent out offers to the cast and now everyone’s waiting to see—not exactly offers, but interest: “This is going to happen next year, we want people to do it, what are your thoughts?” It’s going to be cool no matter what. I love the notion of Gilbert & Sullivan in rep. When I was growing up, going to Stratford with my grandma, they would do Gilbert & Sullivan once a year, and that included Mikado and Pirates and all these awesome shows. And I love that we get to tackle another one. I don’t know what the casting is going to be. It will be cool to see who gets shifted around, and who gets to do different stuff in The Mikado.
The Hypocrites’ Romeo Juliet runs through July 1 at (1543 W Division St, 773-989-7352). Read our review of Romeo Juliet.