Romeo and Juliet are not star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet are 14-year-old kids. 8th graders, in today’s parlance. Hot headed 8th graders who carry swords, and are sick with love for one person one day, and for a totally different person the next.
Their wealth and privilege give them the time to pick fights, or wallow in tears because a girl won’t look at them. Those of the lower castes in Verona are no-doubt too busy in day to day survival under a monarchy to indulge in such pursuits.
There’s also the plague. Which is raging in the background of the doomed “love” story, and which plays a pivotal role in the miscommunication that presages the deaths of the two children around whom the story is told.
That’s my 21st century view of Romeo and Juliet. It’s what I have been thinking as I have listened to my children and their castmates remotely rehearse and film Shakespeare’s most well-known play for Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, in partnership with Vegas Theatre Company.
It’s a pretty cool idea: high school actors are playing the characters who are around their age: Tybalt, Paris, Mercutio, Benvolio, Romeo, Juliet. You know, the main characters. Adult actors are playing the grown-ups in the play, who, of course, exist around the fringes.
One of my seniors is the stage manager for the high-schoolers and my other senior is playing Benvolio.
I have been sitting in our shared workspace (which used to be called a dining room) listening to them go through the process. And I’ve been impressed.
Co-directors Kelly Hawes - VTC's Education Director - and LVA teacher and actress Marissa McCoy have a unique take on R&J in a pandemic. The final product will be serialized over Instagram - the media of choice for teenagers. Hawes’ cut of the script makes sense. The tech and marketing have taken advantage of our stay-at-home lives. Some of the scenes are simply FaceTimes between the characters.
I’ve been most impressed by Wesley Mann, who plays Friar Laurence, whose scheme to unite the young lovers goes awry as the messenger he sends is detained in quarantine.
You know Wesley Mann. In his 20s he was in “Back to the Future II.” He’s the guy bending over an unconscious Biff who utters the immortal lines, “Hey, did you just take his wallet? I think he took his wallet!”
He’s also one of the rescuers in “But I’m a Cheerleader” - one of my favorite films.
His IMDB resume is extensive. His Shakespeare resume is even more impressive.
He spent 11 seasons at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, working in rep and playing a variety of characters. He has done 17 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays - in other words, all of the comedies.
Friar Laurence acts as the father figure to Romeo. Wes, too, acted as a mentor to this cast of high schoolers.
Wes says he took the role because he is friends with Hawes, and because he was intrigued by the project. He asked for this particular role because he’d never played Friar Laurence. And he rarely gets to play Shakespeare characters who speak in verse.
“I find that there’s beauty in the music of verse,” Wes said.
And he loves the role of the Friar, because he is one of the few level-headed people in the play.
“I think he’s kind of fascinating because he wants to slap Romeo at some point,” Wes told me over a Zoom meeting.
Wes is one of a handful of adult actors brought in to workshop with the LVA cast members. The group also worked with Blue Man and veteran Shakespeare actor Chris Brown; and Sean Critchfield, a Tournament of Kings performer and Utah Shakes veteran who plays Lord Capulet in this production. And I brought an old friend, David Rice, from First Folio Theatre in Chicago.
But Wes… I would stop what I was doing every time he would come on screen. That VOICE. It has deepened and wizened since his “Back to the Future” days.
And his patience. He would do a scene, then give one, clear pinpoint note that affected the next reading, after which he would give another clear pinpoint note. He knew what to say, and when to refrain. He knew what each actor could handle, and he pushed them just a little farther.
“These students differ from others I have worked with - because this generation has been so accelerated, they want to do the absolute minimum to make millions of dollars,” Wes said. “They’re not in love with the craft, they’re in love with the idea of being a celebrity and making a bunch of money.”
“With this group of kids,” he added, “they went for it. They were thirsty for it, and they wanted to do well. I didn’t have to coerce them into learning anything.”
I heard that. I heard each student get better every time they worked with Wes. And I heard them laughing with him like an old friend when he couldn’t quite get his tech to work. This generation does have knowledge that my generation does not.
Kudos to Hawes and McCoy for fostering a close-knit working family, even though they were never in the same room. I don’t know how the final product will turn out. But I know that I witnessed a new way of working, however frustrating it might have been at times. And I’m excited about what might be next in pandemic performance.
The LVA/VTC production of Romeo and Juliet will start on November 15, and rolled out through the 19th. Check it out on Instagram @vegas_romeo_and_juliet.
Guest-contributor Carrie Kaufman is a veteran broadcast and print journalist and founder of The Nevada Voice, a reporting venture to bridge the divide between education policymakers and people in schools and classrooms. In addition to her role as a CCSD parent, you can catch her weekly show IMPACT at KUNV 91.5 or online at www.kunv.org/impact. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieKaufman.