By Jan Engoren
What do teenagers know about love?
Apparently, a lot, as the original Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed teenagers.
At the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, teen students are getting the chance this month to show they know what it’s all about in a youth production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, the plot – if you’ve somehow missed it over the years – revolves around the tragic destiny of two teenagers from warring families in 16th-century Verona, Italy. Over the centuries it’s become more than a play; it’s a touchstone of Western civilization.
The story still resonates today – the hate between the Capulets and Montagues and the tragic consequences brought about by prejudice and misunderstanding. Liberals vs. conservatives? Republicans vs. Democrats? Christians vs. Muslims? The rise in tribalism and nativism?
Society (then and now) exploits our differences.
The parallels to today are not lost on these young actors.
“I’m attracted to stories that make us question ourselves and our place in the world,” says its 15-year-old director, Alexander Goodwin-Elam of Jupiter. “We learn from our mistakes.”
Goodwin-Elam says he enjoys the directorial process.
“Translating the vision I have in my head to others is really fun,” says the director, who admires Emmy-nominated director Marsha Milgrom Dodge, who also won a Carbonell for best director for her production of The King and I at the Maltz in 2014.
Goodwin-Elam and the other students are paired with individual theater staff members as part of the Youth Artists’ Chair for one-on-one mentoring and guidance during the creation process of the show.
Playing Romeo is Blake McCall, 13, who started his acting career in kindergarten; Juliet is Hana Roberts, 13, of Palm Beach Gardens.
“Can I go forward when my heart is here? Turn back, dull earth and find thy center out,” McCall says, albeit tentatively, during Act II in the first week of rehearsal, where the focus is on straight run-throughs, repetition and scene-work.
McCall, who aspires to one day play Beetlejuice, admits that learning to speak in iambic pentameter was “confusing” at first and hard to understand. But once he understood the meaning of the words, he said it began to come naturally.
He says Romeo is a bit of a smart-aleck and he likes that side of him, as well as the fact he likes to hang with his buddies, as does McCall.
Roberts responds from her makeshift balcony: “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”
The die is cast for these young lovers.
Roberts, who admires the acting skill of Jim Carrey, says the attention of playing the lead role can be stressful at times. To relax, she doodles flowers on the script.
“Juliet is a strong, logical and intelligent person,” says Roberts, who can relate to the character she plays. “I put all my life experience into my character. Juliet is a part of me now.”
Isabella Betz, 16, a student at the Dreyfoos School of the Arts, is the production stage manager. As someone who is “naturally bossy” and organized, she said she excels in this role, despite having started as an ensemble actor.
Her job is to organize the props and the get the stage ready for the scenes. She prepares rehearsal documents each night for the production team.
The rest of the student creative team consists of: Emma Holloway (assistant director), 17, of Jupiter; Lily Stewart (dramaturg), 15, of Palm Beach Gardens; Ryan Carroll (lighting designer), 17, of Jupiter; Penelope Hess (costume designer), 12, of Palm Beach Gardens; Mia Rubin (sound designer), 15, of Jupiter; and Mitchell Hockenson (props designer), 17, of Jupiter.
All students had to pass through an extensive interview and selection process to be part of the show.
“What makes this production unique is the staging,” says Julie Rowe, Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s director of education.
Because the theater is undergoing a $32 million renovation, an in-the-round seating configuration has been created to provide an immersive experience for the audience.
“This is a fun experience for the audience and for us,” says Rowe.
It’s a more intimate telling of the Romeo and Juliet story and more engrossing for the viewers. For the actors, this means learning to pay attention to the sight lines and being aware of where the audience is.
“We chose shows like this one that presents a challenge to us,” says Rowe.
In past years, the student productions have included To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Rhinoceros, The Glass Menagerie, The Crucible, Hamlet, The Laramie Project and The Good Times Are Killing Me.
“The Youth Artists’ Chair program is a wonderful annual opportunity for local students to spend their summer working on a significant, vital project with their peers,” Rowe said. “These are great students who are spending their summer with Shakespeare.”
“We focus on shows that are relevant and push us,” she says. “Today’s political climate is one that is divided, and arbitrary boundaries are created.
“For young people, the simplest act of all is to fall in love and change the world,” she says.
Romeo and Juliet which be performed at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 8 and 9; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Aug. 10; and 2 p.m. on Aug. 11. Tickets are $20 for students and $25 for adults. Visit www.jupitertheatre.org or call (561) 575-2223.