News Column

Long Wharf Theatre's Shake-It-Up-Shakespeare puts its own spin on 'Romeo and Juliet'

August 17, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 17--NEW HAVEN -- There's a definite us-against-them feeling as the two groups square off against each other from opposite sides of the room. The random stick stomping on the floor soon escalates into a kind of war chant as young actors raise their strong voices in a rendition of "Some Nights" by the alt-rock group Fun.

It's closing in on opening night for the Shake-It-Up-Shakespeare Youth Ensemble's production of "Romeo and Juliet," directed by Long Wharf Theatre Director of Education Annie DiMartino, with performances at Long Wharf's Stage II at 7 p.m. Thursday-Aug. 24 and 2 p.m. Aug. 25.

Every summer, DiMartino directs and adapts a Shakeapeare play, working popular songs in collaboration with music director Carol Taubl, into a show that's accessible to both its young actors and audiences -- wonderfully easy on the ears both in spoken and sung passages.

DiMartino makes this look easy, but she has guidelines.

"I always use Shakespeare's play as the base, only changing simple words like 'him' to 'her.' In terms of the longer speeches, I chose to cut out repetitive sections in order to keep the action of the play moving forward," she says.

A narrator lays out the plotline, which the prologue song's lyrics further emphasize: "Some nights I wish this would all end," their voices sing, "because I could use some friends."

The enthusiastic actors range from ages 14-21, from high schools as well as a few colleges in the Greater New Haven area. The cast of nearly 30 was selected through an audition process that sought out both actors with musical theater talent and musicians as well as novices.

Some are strong actors, others are strong singers, but all will ultimately come out of this production with stronger skills all around, thanks to DiMartino, always the educator.

The first week of rehearsal she spent on technique, which allows her to use a kind of shorthand in rehearsals and scanning and learning lines, until ultimately, she says, it's about "taking responsibility for being a musical theater actor."

DiMartino, who runs the theater's expansive education program with outreach into city schools, chose "Romeo and Juliet" for many reasons, starting with keeping to the program's model of alternating comedy, tragedy, comedy, tragedy.

It's also a play "the students are very often reading in school," she says. "I think there's something in 'Romeo and Juliet' that's inherently interesting to them."

It's probably both surprising and comforting for them to know that even in the time of Shakespeare, there were young lovers, hormones raging, who felt that no one, i.e., their parents, understood them or their needs. Add in the fact the families hated each other, and life gets unbearable as well as dramatic.

"When I began the adaptation, there was the idea that the two households sling insults at each other that progresses ... with one family trying to outdo the other," DiMartino says.

She uses it as a metaphor for the idea of mudslinging, especially in the context of social class, depicting the Montagues as impoverished Appalachians, the Capulets inhabiting a Jay Gatsby-ish world of wealth and privilege, which is also reflecting in the costuming.

The cast includes Chrystina Bonelli of Guilford, Jessica Coppola of North Haven, Alex Luft of Trumbull, Chloe Chappa of Oxford, Dawn Williams of Trumbull, Emily Roberson of New Haven, Hannah Scholnick of Madison, Henry Tobelman of Killingworth, James Taubl of New Haven, Jane Logan of Branford, Jeremiah Taubl of New Haven, Jessica Coppola of North Haven, Kiet Ho of East Haven, Lilly Holmes of Newtown, MacKenzie Stratton of Orange, Maggie Richardson of Wallingford, Matthew DeCostanza of Milford and Morgan Campbell of Westbrook.

Also, Nina Dicker of Old Saybrook, Oriana Mack of Woodbridge, Rachel Skalka of Woodbridge, Rebecca Liss of Woodbridge, Ryan Ronan of West Haven, Sam Taubl of New Haven, Samantha Edelman of North Haven, Sara Jadbabaie of Woodbridge, Shanen Seale of Milford and Steven Smith of New Haven.

"One of the things that was an interesting challenge was for the idea of the role of the parents. I made a conscious decision to not have the parents be singers, only the kids. Right now, I have two fabulous singers cast who won't sing, because I wanted the separation between the parents' fight and the kids' lives. So, some of the song choices I had for those characters are now gone," she says.

The song list is impressive and eclectic, mixing music by some of today's folk groups such as Mumford & Sons and The Civil Wars, with their mountain feel with Taylor Swift, Alison Krause, We the Kings and even Britney Spears, Nine Inch Nails and Credence Clearwater.

Picking the music turned out to be one of those all-encompassing obsessions where DiMartino says she would be sitting in her office, hear something on the radio and say, "Turn it up. What is that? It's perfect for ..."

"When adapting the script, I very often was inspired by the words Shakespeare uses and incorporated music choices that mirrored his language," she says. "For example, in Act I, when Romeo is pining over Rosaline, he repeats the word 'hit' multiple times in terms of Cupid hitting his mark, but that hit could not compare to Diane's wit. Instantly, I thought of (Britney Spears song) 'Hit Me Baby One More Time.'

"At first read, you wouldn't think the music choice was appropriate, but within the context of the scene, it works quite nicely."

Magically, the very next scene up made her point -- their final post-wedding meeting in Act 3. As Romeo (Jeremiah Taubl) and Juliet (Dawn Wells) kneel looking into other's eyes, the scene flows into The Civil Wars' song "Kingdom Come."

"Don't you fret, my dear. It'll all be over soon. I'll be waiting here for you."

You could hear a pin drop.

Contact Donna Doherty at 203-789-5672.

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