I flew with my daughter Lizabeth to Las Vegas on Wednesday, where we snagged a rental car and made the drive to Cedar City, Utah for several days at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. We’ll be seeing three Shakespeare plays, including “Romeo & Juliet,” plus three additional works. It’s a great time to hit the festival because this is their 50th anniversary season and they’re offering a “Hot August Nights” special through August 15.
Not to worry. Neil Diamond won’t be in the house to swivel his hips in Elizabethan garb, and it really isn’t all that hot in Cedar City these days. Their highs have been mirroring our lows lately, which means we’ll be able to break out the sweaters for events after dark. I’m hoping Valley families whose children have seen or performed in Shakespeare’s works will consider a bit of Shakespearean travel before the school year is off and running.
Both youth and adults will be performing in a Theater Works production of “Romeo and Juliet” in Peoria, which opens their 2011-12 season with an Aug 19-Sept 4 run. It’s being directed by Theater Works artistic director Robyn Allen, who told me recently that the work is set in “contemporary Verona.” That’s northern Italy, not the Verona township once a part of Newark, New Jersey.
“The setting, costumes and sound are all contemporary,” says Allen, who feels the approach makes Shakespeare’s work more accessible. “When you can relate to the characters,” she explains, “the language comes easier.” Shakespeare experts agree that his works are better experienced aloud rather than read in silence, so anytime you can actually hear his works during live performance you’re more likely to ‘get it.’
“In Shakespeare’s day,” adds Allen, “what they wore was contemporary.” She muses that Shakespeare didn’t have his actors “running around in togas” — which is certainly true, but nonetheless fun to imagine. “I’m intrigued,” she says, “by what Shakespeare would think today.” Would he wonder, Allen wonders, why everyone was pretending they were still in long-ago time.
“There’s already poetry, and a struggle,” reflects Allen, who feels a return to Elizabethan times isn’t essential to conveying the story. Allen recalls doing “Romeo and Juliet” more than a decade ago with in inner city high school, and says the play has “lots of topics students can relate to.”
Allen says “there’s been no full-scale production of Shakespeare in the West Valley for twenty years,” so she’s concerned that some kids have never experienced one of his works. She describes “Romeo and Juliet” as one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays for youth, and is delighted that their “Romeo and Juliet” ensemble includes “lots of teens.”
To those who fear that Shakepeare’s works are too difficult for youth to grasp, Allen offers the following advice: “Don’t be afraid of the words.” Allen notes that they did “three weeks of table work” to help the younger cast members really understand Shakespeare and this particular play.
For folks who feel Shakespeare has little appeal to youth, she shares this: “This play asks meaningful questions about hot topics.” Think love, loyalty, discrimination, deceit and more. I’m told an updated version of “Dallas” is headed to television, but trust me when I tell you that even the offspring of J.R. and Bobby Ewing can’t hold a candle to Shakespeare in the love, loss and lies department.
Allen notes that study guides will be available for teachers who bring their students to “Romeo and Juliet” at Theater Works. She also notes that there’s plenty of Shakespeare to go around, encouraging families to see other productions as well. “Southwest Shakespeare does fantastic work,” says Allen — who notes that she saw every production Southwest Shakespeare Company of Mesa did last season.
Southwest Shakespeare Company performs “Romeo and Juliet” Jan 5-21, 2012. This production is set in Renaissance Italy. Desert Rose Theatre performs “Romeo and Juliet” in Scottsdale Sept. 10 and 17. I’d love to see the work set in Scottsdale, but I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon. The Utah Shakespeare Festival production runs through Sept 3 so you should hustle if you want to take that in as well. I think it’s great fun to see multiple productions of the same work.
Remember too that the musical “West Side Story,” a modern twist on “Romeo and Juliet,” comes to ASU Gammage in late September. And that a 50th anniversary edition of the movie “West Side Story,” which won 10 Academy Awards, makes its Blu-ray debut Nov 15. “West Side Story” sets the “Romeo and Juliet” story in 1950s New York.
The collector’s set from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment includes lots of “extras” including information of the film’s legacy, song-specific commentary by lyricist Stephen Sondheim, a “music machine” that “allows viewers to go straight into their favorite musical numbers,” memories, trailers and a “storyboard to film comparison montage.” Even something called “Pow! The Dances of West Side Story” featuring analyses of the film’s famous dance sequences from cast members and contemporary filmmakers, dancers and choreographers.
Lizabeth is lucky to be heading off to college in a few weeks. No one really wants to watch me cha cha through the hallway, or hear me sing “I Feel Pretty” dressed in a dingy kitchen apron. Teens sometimes mistake these things for mere annoyances, but we middle-agers know better. How do you think all those nests get so empty to begin with?
Note: Click here to read the “Romeo and Juliet” study guide from Theatre Works
Coming up: From costumes to cabaret in Cedar City, Broadway casting agent meets Lifetime “Dance Moms,” Honk if you love Hans!, An affirmation tale