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Release: Immediate

(NOTE TO BROADCASTERS: Rinde is pronounced RINN-dee.)

Rinde Eckert has new take on 'Romeo and Juliet' in 'Romeo Sierra Tango,' Feb. 17-18 at UI

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Internationally acclaimed performance artist Rinde Eckert, an Iowa City native and University of Iowa alumnus, will put his own idiosyncratic twist on the story of "Romeo and Juliet" in "Romeo Sierra Tango," at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 17-18 in the Hancher Loft of UI Hancher Auditorium. The performances are part of the Iowa City Press-Citizen Millennium Series.

"Romeo Sierra Tango" was commissioned by the New York Shakespeare Festival, which gave Eckert the invitation to write and develop a solo performance that related, in any way he chose, to any of Shakespeare's work.

"Before deciding on a subject I re-read all the plays, thinking at first of doing something with one of the lesser known plays like 'Coriolanus' or 'Timon of Athens'," Eckert recalls. "I re-read 'Romeo and Juliet' as a matter of course, only to find myself with fascinating questions.

"As I took a closer and closer look at this piece, my preconceptions eroded and I was left with a somewhat unusual appreciation of its tragic end. Juliet's death felt complete and noble to me, whereas Romeo's seemed confused and irritating. 'He dies a callow, egotistical jerk,' I thought. Romeo is no good to me this way. I needed him to stay alive, to begin to understand the consequences of his exaggerated self-importance. I needed him to live and learn."

So Eckert devised a clever theatrical device: The drug Romeo took was not really a poison, but merely a sleep-inducing potion with a peculiar side effect -- it made him slow to age. "For centuries he rehearses his own story over and over," Eckert explains. "We catch up with him in the middle of World War I. We find him in No Man's Land without a uniform, not knowing which way to turn, once again caught between the warring houses."

The title, "Romeo Sierra Tango" refers to call letters used by battlefield radio operators. "The sequence of words recalls for me his military situation, the urgency of war," Eckert says. "It is also a beautiful metaphor for a man's journey from himself into a marriage, a journey from solipsism to empathy."

In his previous works, including "Slow Fire" with the Paul Dresher Ensemble and the "The Gardening of Thomas D," a Hancher co-commission that re-imagined Dante's "Divine Comedy" as the nightmare of a guilt-ridden accountant passed out in a supermarket aisle, Eckert has not shied away from addressing big issues in direct, poetic and highly theatrical terms. He calls "Romeo Sierra Tango" a "meditation on love and war, youth and growth, naivete and wisdom."

Even the MTV extravagances of the recent hit film of "Romeo and Juliet" are unlikely to prepare audiences for the wild improbabilities and rich mysteries of Eckert's personal twist on the story, in which the Bard's poetry collides with the advent of the Quantum Theory, the Russian Revolution and the birth of jazz, as Romeo struggles toward his apotheosis.

Eckert's father, Robert Eckert, was head of the voice faculty in the UI School of Music for many years. Rinde grew up in Iowa City and attended the University of Iowa, where his artistic activities ranged from Broadway musicals to the Center for New Music. After graduating from the UI School of Music, he studied theater at Yale University.

He collaborated for many years with artists including composer Paul Dresher and choreographer Margaret Jenkins, while developing a solo career encompassing composing, recording, scriptwriting, theater, singing and movement. In addition to his performance works -- most recently seen in Hancher was "The Idiot Variations" -- he has released three CDs that combine folk music with his trademark declamatory music/theater.

Whereas most of Eckert's previous works, however offbeat, could be described as musical theater or even opera, he says that "Romeo Sierra Tango" is more purely a piece of dramatic theater. "The piece has ended up being more about language and movement," he says. "The music is playing a subordinate role. Of course, taking off as it does on the rhythms of Shakespearean verse, the language has kind of intrinsic musicality, but I only actually sing twice in the piece.

"The piece starts and ends as pure movement or dance. In between it ranges from vaudeville to Stratford-on-Avon, commedia to tragedy."

The Hancher Loft is an intimate theatrical setting in which the audience is seated on stage with the performer. Entrance to the Hancher Loft is through the Stage Door, near the loading dock on the west side of the building.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen is the corporate sponsor of Hancher's Millennium Series, through the University of Iowa Foundation.

Tickets for Rinde Eckert's "Romeo Sierra Tango" are $22 ($17.60 for UI student and senior citizens, and $11 for audience members 17 and younger) from the Hancher Auditorium box office.

Hancher box office hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and 1-3 p.m. Sunday. From the local calling area or outside Iowa, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance within Iowa and western Illinois is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction.

People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158. This number will be answered by box office personnel prepared to offer assistance with handicapped parking, wheelchair access and seating, hearing augmentation and other services. The line is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.