Drama of young love

02/07/18 By Gary M. Baranec Juliet (Brandis Ajay) begs for foregiveness from Lady and Lord Capulet (Arela Rivas and Eric Wolf).

Local company performs first Shakespeare act

By Cherie Hicks


The story full of woe about Juliet and her Romeo is coming to the Mishler Theatre stage for the first time next week. But don’t expect the standard stage treatment with period costumes from Shakespeare’s time.

Director Stephen Guice is mixing it up “dichotomous style,” blending period settings with modern dress and contemporary music in the production of “Romeo and Juliet” that runs Feb. 15-18.

It is ACT’s first fully-staged Shakespeare production, according to operations manager Steve Helsel. And, the bard is as relevant today as he was when he wrote “R&J” in 1594, Guice said, noting that parents still try to exert control of their children and teenagers who still try to find their way in an adult world.

“Many of the problems of today were problems 400 years ago,” Guice said. “Human beings don’t really change; our technology changes. We still have issues with gender roles in society. … We still have love and we still have hate and we still have desires. That’s why Shakespeare is still relevant. And that’s why we will still perform him 400 years from now.”

Shakespeare often played opposites, with the first half of “R&J” as a comedy and the second half a somber tale, Guice explained.

“The first half is told from the perspective of the young men, dirty and raunchy and having a good time… Young men getting into trouble,” he said.

The setting is what you would expect from a centuries’ old story: An old villa with a balcony. But the young men will be wearing American Eagle jeans and having fun with music from the 1980s Talking Heads rock band, Guice said.

The second half tells Juliet’s story, her sad home life, shut away while her father contemplates an arranged marriage for her to improve his own lot, he said. The music will be much more somber, but it features music from contemporary female artists like Nellie McKay and songs such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Be My Baby.”

Guice said he has seen “R&J” done a lot of different ways, but not quite the way ACT is doing it.

“You see Shakespeare done in modern dress a lot … but not people in modern dress in an old setting and using modern music,” he said, adding that the lighting will be different as well.

He also edited it down from what would be nearly a four-hour show to about 140 minutes, which includes a 15-minute intermission. The story, though, remains intact, he said.

An Altoona native, Guice studied at the two-year conservatory Circle in the Square in New York City and acted professionally there and in regional theater as well as on tours. Last year, he directed and was a lead actor in Cresson Lake Playhouse’s production of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

While in New York, he was in an off-Broadway production of “Romeo and Juliet” as Juliet’s nurse.

“I was a male playing an overbearing lady,” he said. “It was fun.”

But he realized then he would do things differently to better capture a modern audience if he was the director, he said. When ACT announced last summer that it was producing “Romeo and Juliet,” Guice presented to the selection committee his production ideas, with the music, set and costumes already drafted. He was selected over two others who sought the position.

Will purists be upset with the modern twist on a classic?

“Purists today don’t really have the opportunity to see how it was originally done,” Guice said. “There were a few little concessions made, nice little nods to maybe some purists. I like to be a purist sometimes, too. But I knew we were bringing in 800 high school students to see the show. And I knew the minute we sent guys out on stage in tights, we’d lose those kids for 20 minutes. They can’t relate to them. That’s true of adults, too; they’d have a hard time relating to these men and women in outlandish costumes.”

Helsel said several ACT members have suggested a Shakespeare production for years, and the committee looked at “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for this season. It decided on “R&J” in part because it is in area schools’ ninth-grade reading curriculum. One weekday matinee is scheduled to accommodate school field trips, “even though that’s not easy for our volunteer actors and stage crew members,” Helsel said.

Cast as the title characters are Ryen Beam as Romeo and Brandis Ajay as Juliet. Beam made his ACT debut last fall in “Big River” and played Harry Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He also won an ACT Isaac Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role last year for his performance as Ren McCormick in Bellwood-Antis High School’s presentation of “Footloose.” He currently is a student at Penn State Altoona.

Beam said it is “very intriguing to play the role of a heartbroken, depressed teen who becomes lovestruck once again all within the course of a day, which is as relatable in Shakespeare’s time as it is today.”

Ajay also debuted with ACT in “Big River,” playing Mary Jane Wilkes. A sophomore at Penn State Altoona studying voice performance, she was active in musical theater at Altoona Area High School, as well as with Cresson Lake Playhouse, where she was in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with Guice last summer.

She said he told her then about his plans for “R&J” with a “more brave and empowered Juliet.”

“I really loved the idea of this because it takes a lot of strength and courage to do what she did, and I think a lot of people tend to miss that,” Ajay said.

Other key actors are Eric Wolf of Ebensburg and Arela Rivas of Altoona as Juliet’s parents, Capulet and Lady Capulet. Romeo’s parents, Montague and Lady Montague, are Rick Herbster and Gigi Campbell, both of Altoona. Kate Kale Wolf of Ebensburg, plays Juliet’s Nurse.

Ben Cossitor is Friar Lawrence, David Rutter is Friar John, Dylan Dodson is The Prince, Justin Delasko is Mercutio, Jake Herbster is Benvolio, Rhys Long is Tybalt, Caleb Wolfe is Paris, David Claar is Peter and David Wirick is The Apothecary.

Ensemble members include Ava Adams, Meira Cannarsa, Betsy Chilcoat, Tony Demi, Chase Fiore, Sydney Frank, Ellie Herbster, Hunter Gregg, Zander Johnson, Alex Koeningsberg, Lizzie McCaffrey, Amelia Morning, Jacob Orczeck, Jesse Waters and Alysa Weidlich.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.