“Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs.”
So spaketh William Shakespeare in “Romeo and Juliet,” perfectly capturing the illusive nature of adolescent longing.
Though de rigueur reading in high school English classes around the country, when portrayed professionally on stage Shakespeare’s best known and most beloved tragic tale of star-crossed teens often features seasoned actors who are twice the age or more of the title characters.
But the youngsters will be back in a big way on March 14 when Guild Hall opens its new production of “R and J” on the stage of the John Drew Theater. On the age continuum, this version feels right where it should be. During a recent rehearsal at Guild Hall, the Montague boys were at it on stage as Broadway fight director Dan Renkin (who will portray Friar Lawrence in the play) worked through the wrestling, tugging and sword fighting skills necessary to convey the spirited nature of young men approaching their prime with little outlet for their energy.
Four of the 10 performances of “Romeo and Juliet” will be student matinees and East End Schools have committed to bringing classes to see the production where many theater-goers will see their classmates on stage. That’s because in addition to young Actor’s Equity pros and recent conservatory graduates from around the New York metropolitan area in the main roles, the cast also features seven local high school students and three more working backstage.
“I’m thrilled to have these kids here and it’s why we got the green light for this,” explained director Josh Gladstone during a recent rehearsal at Guild Hall. Gladstone came to Guild Hall as Artistic Director of the John Drew Theater back in the early 2000s after having founded the now defunct Hamptons Shakespeare Festival. For his first four years at Guild Hall, he offered Shakespeare productions with the involvement of local students.
“The program provided connection to actors in the community — both veteran and student actors — and those students learned to become artistic interns and technicians,” Gladstone noted.
Several of them went on to pursue theater in college or professionally, and subsequently returned to the John Drew stage with their own theater companies in tow, or as actors in support of Guild Hall’s productions. Then the program was cut from the budget, and for more than a decade, Gladstone offered no youth Shakespeare programs at Guild Hall.
“The program withered away and the stream from the community of kids involved who were coming back dried up,” he said.
But that all changed with the arrival of Andrea Grover, Guild Hall’s new executive director, in September 2016. Under her leadership, student-involvement became a priority and Shakespeare was back on the table again.
“Andrea comes here with a whole new perspective and wanting to connect to the community, the staff and their talents and get people energized about the place again,” said Gladstone. “To her credit, she recognized it’s valuable. Even though Shakespeare is not a money maker, the connection, artistically, to the year-round community is valuable.”
Also guiding this ship is Guild Hall’s new Teen Arts Council, which formed a year ago and is comprised of local students who will lead a talk-back session with the audience following the March 23 performance of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Set in a rehearsal space in present-day Manhattan with a post-punk score featuring the music of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds along with trippy background projections, the pared down staging was a choice made both by design and budget — and one that is likely to be a hit with teenagers.
“The show itself has a non-traditional aesthetic,” explained Gladstone. “It’s the kind of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ where people put down a cup of coffee and pick up a script — no tights — just actors, theater students, telling the story in the space.”
There are some gender reversals here as well with the male character, Benvolio, being portrayed as a female by actress Quinn Jackson. Another young actress, Pierson High School junior Reilly Rose Schombs, will portray a boy — Balthasar, Romeo’s servant and trusted friend. This is not the first time Schombs has done a gender role reversal on stage. Two years ago, she played Jack (of beanstalk fame), in Pierson High School’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”
In telling the story of “Romeo and Juliet,” Gladstone felt it was vital that all of the actors — especially those still in high school — came to the stage with a complete and thorough understanding of the meaning behind the Shakespearean words they were uttering.
“That’s my thing as a director — you don’t go on the stage and say a word unless you know you’re connected with the emotional truth of what you’re saying,” said Gladstone. “We spent three weeks with the text, paraphrasing, breaking down the metre, and understanding every metaphor and all the poetry. We did improvisations with the kids and had them put the text into their own words and didn’t put a scene on its feet until after those three weeks.”
In her role of Balthasar, Schombs frequently finds herself in the company of Romeo and his rowdy friends on stage. Like adolescents throughout history, they delight in taunting passersby with lewd comments or crude gestures and Schombs admits this is one aspect of “Romeo and Juliet” that she never quite picked up on in English class.
“I read the show with my teacher who glazed over a lot of the crassness,” said Schombs. “When we were talking about the show, everything was buttoned up. But here, we paraphrased every line and we realized what Mercutio really means when he talks about the ‘prick of noon.’ He tells dirty jokes that went over my head. Our teacher didn’t explain it.”
“I don’t think teachers really know a lot about it,” added Frank Bademci, an East Hampton High School junior who plays Peter, a Capulet servant who is among those subjected to the verbal wrath of the Montague gang. “It’s different when you’re reading it in school. Here, we completely paraphrased it in three weeks … It was very enlightening.”
William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” directed by Josh Gladstone runs March 14 to 25 at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Shows are 10 a.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays; 7 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. A special post-show talk-back led by Guild Hall’s Teen Arts Council will take place on Friday, March 23. Tickets are $25 ($23 members) and $10 for students. To purchase visit guildhall.org or call (631) 324-4050.