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Appalachian Romeo Meets Gatsby Juliet

by Allan Appel | Aug 21, 2013 3:32 pm

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater

When these young Montagues and Capulets face off against each other they’ll be flinging not only daggers and swords, but equally cutting lyrics from the likes of The Civil Wars, Taylor Swift, and Mumford & Sons.

Those lyrics will feature in this season’s edition of “Shake it Up Shakespeare,” the Long Wharf Theatre’s youth ensemble’s musical take on the bard’s dramas. The ensemble tackles Romeo & Juliet in this year’s production.

The “shaken-up” manifestation of the play imagines Romeo’s family as hard-bitten pre-Depression hillbillies while Juliet hails from the flappery mansions of the newly rich. Long Wharf Director of Education Annie DiMartino has infused the play’s scenes with contemporary songs, with many deriving from the folk tradition, that echo these clashing worlds.

Allan Appel Photo The cast of 27 teens from greater New Haven, who made the cut from more than 50 who auditioned, act, dance, fight, and play all the music, giving the show a propulsive ensemble energy that was evident at the first off-book run-through Friday afternoon.

Public performances begin at 7 p.m. Aug. 22 to 24, and at 2 p.m. on Aug. 25 at Long Wharf’s Stage II.

DiMartino’s adaptations began in 2010 with The Taming of the Shrew,. Click here for a story about that production. In 2011, the adaptation for teens featured a Hamlet who may have been a little moody but also played the cello. And last year, A Midsummer Night’s Dream saw the humans in the play haunting the 1950s world of Mad Men.

This year DiMartino grew interested in how stained and flawed the two families in Romeo & Juliet are. Yet what if they were portrayed not as members of a single flawed society, not birds of a feather? Not even the kissing-cousin gang members, the Sharks and the Jets, in what is perhaps the most famous adaptation of the play, the Leonard Bernstein/Jerome Robbins/Stephen SondheimWest Side Story?

What if you could use the play, enhanced by music and choreography, to explore the moral stains on both sides of the American social class divide?

That’s how this season’s star-crossed lovers have come to hail from the economically and culturally distant worlds of Appalachian poverty and Gatsby-esque glamor.

Dawn Williams, who plays Juliet, said bringing this conception of the play to life is a challenge in part because the play’s been done so often that people have a kind of Romeo and Juliet fatigue, and some people she knows say they don’t like the play.

“We’re trying to make it as real and heart-wrenching as possible,” she said.

That’s where the music comes in. As in all thoughtful musicals or musical variations on plays, it’s there to underline the emotion, and if you’re lucky maybe even advance the story.

That becomes particularly important if the young actors are not able to convey enough in the dialogue. Their articulation of Shakespeare’s language, reflecting work done with professional coaches DiMartino has brought in during the short three weeks of rehearsal, sounded clear and moving during the run-through.

DiMartino said her abridgement all takes place within the scenes of the play, with all scenes represented if not in their entirely. The presentation is 85 percent the original, with the balance wide ranging musical numbers conveying attraction, conflict, regret, violence, and heartbreak.

The prologue (a snippet is in the video), for example, is “Some Nights,” by by the indie band FUN, a number done with battle sticks, weapons, crashing on the stage floor, and all to be performed in semi darkness

New cast member Rebecca Liss,who is a first-time actor, was also impressed with the physical acting training the kids have been practicing under DiMartino. When they dance or move, the Appalachian-esque Montagues crouch lower to the ground.

By contrast, “It’s so cool [the way the glamour-puss] the Capulets elevate [in their physical movements]” she said.

With DiMartino bringing together such distinctly different worlds as the very poor and the very wealthy—this doesn’t happen all that much in regular life— how is Williams as a young actress able to be convincing in her attraction to someone so other-worldly such as DiMartino’s lower-class Romeo?

One answer, Williams said, is that in this production the minor characters—like Juliet’s mom, Lady Capulet—have more definition than usual. This Lady Capulet happens to be a drunk. In fact most of the adult world is pretty horrible, both rich and poor.

Therefore, in falling for Romeo, “This is the first time I step up for myself,” Williams said.

“He’s your ray of hope,” said Liss.

Tickets cost ten bucks. The performance features an inventive adaptation, lots of rousing music, and—who knows?—maybe a peek at future stars at the dawn of their careers.

For more info, contact the Long Wharf box office.

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