Thursday October 11, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Romeo & Juliet ... star-crossed lovers ... balcony scene ... Wherefore art thou ... Yada, yada, yada.

Sometimes, great art becomes too iconic for its own good, so well known as a symbol, the substance is diminished.

Enter New England Youth Theatre, which is tearing into Shakespeare’s classic love tragedy to get at the intense emotions at its heart, in a production directed by Peter Gould that opens this Friday and runs through Oct. 21.

"It’s a lot more emotional than any play I’ve ever been in," said cast member Winona Meyer.

Who better than a bunch of teens to get it just right -- they’re about the same age as Romeo and Juliet. They can relate to a world of quick-firing teen emotions experienced in a world of incomprehensible behavior by grown-ups.

"They’re the perfect age to really get these emotions and do it well. I don’t know if you can do it better," agreed Dory Hamm, NEYT alumnus and assistant director for this production.

"It’s such an intense love story that happens so quickly. Romeo and Juliet have such intense emotions that we teenagers can relate to because we feel things so intensely," said cast member Louisa Strothman, a 15-year-old student at Brattleboro Union High School. "We’ve been aware of suicide in our community and among people we’ve known. ... We talked a lot about the intense emotions we feel as young people."

That’s good for the art. To make sure it’s good for the artists, Gould has taken pains to talk with the teen cast and help keep things in perspective.

According to the Vermont Department of Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people in Vermont who are between the ages of 10 and 24. On Friday, Oct. 19, after their performance, the NEYT students will lead a talkback with the audience about the play, youth suicide and conflict transformation. The cast will be joined by director Peter Gould and Ron Boslun, the suicide prevention representative from The Compass School.

"This is such an important story, and this production is going to really nail it," stated Gould.

In doing so, the NEYT cast and crew are working toward not only making a great play, but making a difference -- and showing the world that young people can lead the way.

"The whole story, it’s just about people that are kind of clueless, and it’s the people who are the youngest who have things figured out," said Maia Struthers, who plays Juliet.

"Romeo & Juliet" is the story of two wealthy households -- the Montagues and the Capulets -- who are at war with each other. Friar Lawrence tries to bring peace to the city by secretly marrying Romeo, a Montague, to Juliet, a Capulet. However, this plan for peace hinges on two very young teens on a roller coaster of hormones. When, hours after the marriage, Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin, the lovers’ impetuous adolescent emotions threaten any plans for peace.

For all its iconic stature, "Romeo & Juliet" is a bit of a mystery. Shakespeare really doesn’t reveal too much about who Romeo and Juliet really are or how they fell so passionately in love. Struthers said she’s enjoyed the challenge of creating Juliet’s character from the few clues Shakespeare left.

"For me, I like to talk to my characters. Juliet is interesting because there’s not much to go on. ... I’ve mostly been working on how she and I similar," said Struthers, who’s 16, a but older than Juliet. "Juliet feels kind of like a character I can relate to. ... She’s young. She’s funny. ... She doesn’t know who she is.

"As a teenager, it’s very easy to think you’re in love with someone very fast, and the feelings Romeo and Juliet have are very relevant," Struthers added. "It’s relevant because all the feelings are timeless."

Gould is known for his Get Thee to the Funnery programs, which this summer received a $10,000 grant from the Vermont Community Foundation to bring the program to students living in low-income housing developments across central and northern Vermont. Gov. Peter Schumlin issued a proclamation commending Get Thee to the Funnery’s community outreach work.

A contingent of Gould’s students from Barre put on a truncated version of "Romeo & Juliet" this summer. Gould has arranged for the Get Thee to the Funnery Staff to accompany those students on the train from Montpelier to Brattleboro to see the show this Saturday.

"Romeo & Juliet" performs Oct. 12-21, at 7 p.m., on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Tickets are $9 for students, $11 for seniors, and $13 for adults. Tickets may be purchased at www.neyt.org, or at the NEYT Box Office in person, or by phone at 802-246-6398, from noon to 5 p.m., on Wednesdays. The show plays at New England Youth Theatre, 100 Flat St.

New England Youth Theatre is an accessible theater, with accommodations for wheelchairs, and Assistive Listening Devices for patrons who are hard of hearing.

This show is sponsored by Brattleboro Savings & Loan. New England Youth Theatre is also supported by Foard Panel, the Vermont Children’s Trust Fund, Vermont Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.