Everyone knows “Romeo and Juliet,” the romantic story of star-crossed lovers featuring gang battles, fistfights and gun battles. … Well, everyone might not know this version.
Lafayette Society for Performing Arts brings the classic love story to the 21st century with its upcoming interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet,” which starts Thursday. The modern-day take on the classic story puts a “relatively new” spin on the story for the audience, said director Ryan McWhorter.
The play draws upon the feuding families of Montague and Capulet, to whom Romeo and Juliet respectively belong. The play opens with a street brawl between members of the two families involving fists, bats, blades and ultimately a showdown with revolvers before either of the two title characters are even mentioned.
“I think people hear Shakespeare and they are afraid, but you put it in a modern setting, it’s more accessible,” McWhorter said. “Plus it helps us put it into a modern context where people can relate to it better. It’s more real for (the actors) and the audience.”
McWhorter also has added another unique twist to the LSPA production of Shakespeare’s classic. Anna Howington plays original character Fate, who gives singing narrations setting up each act and also appears in spots throughout the play as characters who set the two lovers’ actions into motion.
“I’m always in the shadows,” Howington said of her unique role. “It’s really neat, really cool.”
Howington added that the story is her favorite Shakespearean story to see performed.
McWhorter said that his production doesn’t amplify the action already in the original play, but bringing it from Victorian England, where a sword fight may have been more commonplace, into the modern world where gangs fight with guns, bats and knives is more out of the ordinary, and seems more brutal.
Despite sticking to classical Shakespearean language, the actors for the production are trying to convey the meaning behind their words for a modern audience. McWhorter said he really wants to accentuate that despite the complex wording, the characters are really having common, down-to-Earth discussions that most people have every day.
The play features some newcomers to LSPA for the performance. Troup High School students Kevin Ward and Sarah McDonald play the lead roles, and were encouraged to audition by their drama teacher, Carol Cain. They have performed in school productions, but this will be their first time for LSPA.
“This is Kevin’s first major role in theater,” McWhorter said about the production’s Romeo. “It’s a big task, but he’s doing great stuff.”
Ward describes Romeo as trying to avoid conflict in the midst of the feud that embroils his and Juliet’s families. He said the feud was never really important to Romeo, so he’s willing to defy it after falling in love with Juliet.
McDonald said Juliet is like a standard 14-year-old girl. She’s trying to figure out what she wants and defiant for the plans her family has placed in front of her.
Randy Powell, who plays Juliet’s protective cousin Tybalt, also is a newcomer to the local stage. Powell said he decided to try out because he and his wife enjoyed LSPA productions of “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Hot l Baltimore,” and he felt it would help in his aspirations for production and direction.
“He’s very protective over (Juliet) and he doesn’t like seeing a Montague getting close to her,” Powell said of his character. “… He has a lot of anger just underneath the surface, but he’s trying to stay controlled all the time.”
Toby Smallwood, who plays Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin and best friend, has been in LSPA plays since 2007 and is a long-time friend of McWhorter. He joked that he wasn’t sure why, but he must really love acting because he commutes from Roswell to perform in LaGrange.
“He’s trying to watch out for Romeo, and he has a tendency to get into lots of fights and trouble,” Smallwood said of his character. “But he wants to be a peacekeeper, at the same time he’s all about the feud between the families … but I don’t think he wants to see anyone killed.”
Josh McWhorter, the director’s brother, plays Mercutio, one of Romeo’s close friends. The character is related to the prince to whom both families pledge loyalty.
“Mercutio has no vested interest in either side,” Josh McWhorter said. “… But Romeo and Benvolio have been his friends.”
Kirk Abernathy, who plays Gregory, a Capulet, is another newcomer to the stage after a suggestion from long-time friend Powell. Abernathy compared acting to performing live music – he and Powell sing in area bands – and said he was intrigued by McWhorter’s enthusiasm for and different take on the project.
Ben Sasser, who plays Lord Capulet, said he likes the modern update and how the actors are playing to convey the meaning behind the Shakespearean language. He said the play is still relatable to a modern audience.
Nylsa Bunbar, who plays Lady Capulet, said people who aren’t familiar with the play definitely need to come out and see it. Melissa Stanley, who plays Juliet’s nurse and close confidant, said she has enjoyed working with the new people in the play.
Mark Veon, who plays Lord Montague, said he teaches Shakespeare at Troup High School and likes being able to experience acting in the play, because Shakespeare always meant for his works to be performed, not just read. He said it also has been interesting to work with a lot of the young and new actors in the play.
Actors said for those who have dismissed the story as simply one of young love, there is actually much more to see, especially in LSPA’s version.
“Everybody generalizes it as star-crossed lovers, but what’s really happening is this converging of all this action and adventure and passion and humor and fun and parts of romance and tragedy, and we get to point all that out with our delivery,” Powell said. “All the elements are there … action scenes for the guys and romantic scenes for the girls.”
For director McWhorter, the reason to come see it is simple:
“Shakespeare is something that everyone should experience,” he said.
“Romeo and Juliet” will be a picnic theater show, with patrons having the option to bring food to eat an hour before the show begins, but food and drink must be put away before show time. Reservations are required. Riser seats for those not planning to eat also are available.
Lafayette Society for Performing Arts presents ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and May 10 and 11, and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $15 adults and $10 for students. Call 706-882-9909 to reserve seats.