Matthew Reddin
Theater

Teens Tackle Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s young lovers are played by performers of that age in First Stage’s Young Company show.

By - May 14th, 2014 03:43 pm
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Max Mainwood and Kiaran Hartnett in First Stage’s ROMEO AND JULIET.  Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Max Mainwood and Kiaran Hartnett in First Stage’s ROMEO AND JULIET. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Shakespeare’s surely the playwright with the best reputation, but he also has perhaps the worst rep among the general populace – denounced as too difficult to comprehend, and even tough for actors to convey 400 years after his plays were written.

John Maclay doesn’t agree, and as the associate artistic director of First Stage Children’s Theater and lead director of its Young Company, he’s in a place to prove it. This week, his talented troupe of teenage actors and adult mentors will take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a story they’re uniquely equipped to tell.

It’s not often a production features actors of the same age as its protagonists, since the roles of Romeo, Juliet and their companions require a level of skill that’s hard to find in young performers. But Maclay says that’s no problem with the Young Company, a spectacular group of high school-age actors that First Stage provides with college-level training in order to improve their skills and help prepare them for top acting programs after graduation. “The difficulty of the roles often necessitates hiring older artists to play them,” Maclay says. “But our teenagers handle the language with clarity and ease. It’s rather remarkable to watch.”

Maclay has been directing the Young Company since its formation 10 years ago, but it wasn’t always as structured and strong as it is today. While he says the program’s goals have remained constant, they began with a mere 30-odd students and two instructors, himself and Todd Denning. A decade later, the company has more than twice as many students, and an increase in teachers and organization to accompany that.

“On a given Saturday,” Maclay says, “young training actors may be in one room studying ‘Viewpoints’ with Matt Daniels or in another working on the rhetoric of Hamlet with Marcella Kearns or another learning phonetics and dialects with me.” He adds that they’ve been able to increasingly bring in guest artists to conduct master classes with students, from regional performers like Angela Iannone to national artists like Broadway dance captain Geoffrey Goldberg or Breaking Bad actress Betsy Brandt.

All that preparation gives the Young Company the ability to handle contemporary and classical works alike, and Maclay says their seasons tend to include both – earlier this year, the company tackled a Dawn of the Dead parody entitled Maul of the Dead, and previous cohorts have performed Julius Caesar, Othello, Moliere’s Tartuffe and Sophocles’ Antigone.

Mary Elsa Heinrichs and Conlan Ledwith in First Stage’s ROMEO AND JULIET.  Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Mary Elsa Heinrichs and Conlan Ledwith in First Stage’s ROMEO AND JULIET. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Romeo and Juliet is an especially appropriate choice, though, because it’s already so frequently read in schools, several of which will get the chance to see the Young Company’s abridged, 75-minute production this week. Maclay says the Young Company originally focused on public performances like any other company, but have been expanding into productions at local schools – this year, with the help of a substantial grant from the National Endowment for the Arts – as a way to share Shakespeare’s works and themes with more students than just those in the company. “A production like this can make Shakespeare come alive for an audience member. I hope students in the audiences walk away reminded that violence is futile, pointless and always perpetuates more violence, and that Shakespeare is incredible, truthful and not in any way beyond them,” Maclay says.

It’s a fitting education for the Young Company too, who Maclay says already echoes the companies Shakespeare himself was a part of, in continually watching and learning from their older mentors. But Romeo and Juliet and other classical works are an important piece in and of themselves. “Shakespeare had perhaps history’s greatest insight into what it is to be human and a rare ability to articulate that insight,” Maclay says.

First Stage’s Young Company production of Romeo and Juliet will be performed at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 16 and Saturday, May 17, at Golda Meir School, 1555 N. Dr Martin Luther King Dr. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at (414) 267-2961 or the First Stage box office.

 

PREVIEW: Hair, at Skylight Music Theater

If you thought the Skylight’s 2013-14 season was pushing boundaries before, wait ’til you see their production of Hair, one of the most radical works of musical theater ever published. Following a tribe of draft-dodgers and counter-cultural hippies, Hair stunned audiences in the late ‘60s with its groundbreaking rock score and multiracial casting, and tackled social issues – including pacifism, drug use and free sexual expression – that remain relevant in the modern day. It’s a daring way for artistic director Viswa Subbaraman to wrap up his inaugural season in Milwaukee, and he’ll have the help of a strong creative team including stage director/Skylight regular Ray Jivoff to ensure he sticks the landing.

Hair opens Friday, May 16, and runs through June 8 at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $22.50 to $65 and can be purchased at (414) 291-7800 or the Skylight box office.

 

PREVIEW: Giovanni, at Off the Wall Theater

There’s almost no end to the tales and legends of the infamous lover Don Juan that have percolated through the ages, including Mozart’s most famous opera, Don Giovanni. Dale Gutzman and Off the Wall Theatre have grabbed the Italian name for his adaptation of those stories, Giovanni, starring Jeremy C. Welter as the charmer himself. Gutzman’s comedy-romance is told thanks to Giovanni’s loyal and long-suffering servant Leporello (David Flores), who chronicles his master’s many misadventures, including conflicts with officers and nobles, liaisons with women and men who cross into his path and the brewing threat of those who he’s wronged who seek revenge, including (but, unsurprisingly, not limited to) his three most famous lovers: society woman Donna Anna, the formerly innocent village girl Zerlina and Donna Elvira, once seduced and married by Giovanni in a convent. Did I mention Gutzman’s stage is a bullring-slash-bedroom? Olé, indeed.

Giovanni opens Thursday, May 15, and runs through May 25 at Off the Wall Theatre. Tickets are $25 and can be ordered at (414) 484-8874 or Off the Wall’s website.

 

CLOSING THIS WEEK:

Windfall Theatre: Storefront Church, through May 17

Theatre Gigante: Midsummer in Midwinter, through May 17

Milwaukee Rep: Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stackner Cabaret, through May 18

In Tandem Theatre: 1959 Pink Thunderbird, through May 18

Sunset Playhouse: I Hate Hamlet, through May 18

 

ALSO ON STAGE:

Milwaukee Opera Theatre: Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom, through May 24

Skylight Music Theatre: I Hear America Singing, through June 1

First Stage: Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever, through June 1

Fireside Theater: Fiddler on the Roof, through June 8

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