It’s Brooklyn in 1959 and, to the lingering strains of such pop hits as the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and the Platters’ “My Prayer,” this young dude is pining for this babe-alicious chick with what will become a classic Cupid-has-made-me-stupid line: “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”
Welcome to City Repertory Theatre’s third annual Shakespeare in the Park production, wherein Shakespeare’s 423-year-old tragic tale of star-crossed lovers is being shape-shifted to that New York City borough in an era when such pop culture fare as TV’s “Wagon Train” and “Perry Mason,” and those previously mentioned hit songs ruled the land.
City Rep’s production was to gallop night by night on the outdoor pavilion stage of the Palm Coast Arts Foundation in Town center. But last week’s tempest had violent ends, ripping the stage’s big tent off its skeletal rafters and making the rehearsals impossible and the stage unusable. So the performances Thursday Feb. 27 through Sunday March 1 have been moved to City Rep’s own stage at City Marketplace.
City Rep is also shaking up Shakes to a degree, but anyone who believes the troupe’s take on the Bard is reminiscent of a certain “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired 1957 musical will draw the ire of director John Sbordone.
“It didn’t even dawn on me until people were saying ‘What are you doing – “Westside Story?” ’ ” Sbordone growls, his voice sounding more irascible than if someone had suggested Juliet should have a talking Chihuahua.
“No,” Sbordone continues. “I grew up in Brooklyn. I was born in ’45, so in ’57, ’58, ’59 I was 13-14 years old. It just struck me as I looked at the idyllic love of Romeo and Juliet that the pop music of the time fits so perfectly into that. So that’s what I went with, and what does that mean? We’re still using foils. We’re still fencing. A lot of the references and a lot of what Angela (Young) will be doing as our chorus will be bringing that (the Shakespeare components) constantly to the fore.”
The City Rep production trims the Bard’s original two-hour-and-fifty-minute play to under two hours. But this tale of the teenagers Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, who fall in love despite that their respective families are sworn, hated enemies, retains the Elizabethan language of Shakespeare.
Yes, say the play’s two leads, Brent Jordan and Lillie Thomas, the Queen’s English is a challenge, given that this queen lived 400 years in a foreign land.
“In my regular day, I do not say ‘thy’ or ‘thou,’ ” Jordan says with a hearty laugh. A Lake Helen resident who works at a call center, Jordan is a veteran area actor who has starred in City Rep’s “Hand to God,” “Actually” and “The Rocky Horror Show.”
Working with Shakespearean language of saint-seducing gold requires a certain kind of “translating” skill, he says: “It’s funny how much time I’ve taken with this script, to break down even paragraphs, just understanding what a couple of sentences are saying and implying. I have to figure out how this would be translated into modern language, and then use that back in the language I see in the script, to be able to understand the motivation of what I’m saying.”
Thomas, a Winter Park environmental engineer who was named best leading actress in a musical for 2019 by the Orlando Sentinel, for her role in “Children of Eden” at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, is more succinct: “There are a lot of tongue-twisters in the language!”
However, she adds, “Shakespeare is one of my favorite playwrights. We had a chance to study ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in high school and I fell in love with the character. I fell really in love with the play from the Zeffirelli film (the 1968 British-Italian film “Romeo and Juliet,” based on the play and directed and co-written by Franco Zeffirelli, and starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey). That is my favorite version of the play.”
Portraying Juliet “is a pretty big deal for me,” Thomas adds. The play “is one of the major tragic love stories that everybody loves.”
Even during rehearsals, the chemistry between Thomas and Jordan was electric . . . or was that chemistry merely the result of their dramatic skills — reminiscent of the time Laurence Olivier took note of Dustin Hoffman’s intense, become-your-character method and sniffed, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?”
“They hit it off at auditions,” Sbordone says. “We had about eight or nine women auditioning. Lillie walked in and she and Brent did a scene together and it was ‘OK, that’s going to work, absolutely.’ They’ve spent time driving to rehearsals together, and they trust each other. Lillie’s happily married, and this is acting with two people who like each other, and because they like each other the chemistry works. It’s fabulous. And they’re both very talented.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen love scenes and I went ‘Oh no’ (sighs). They kissed, they held each other but there was nothing going on. There’s the craft and then there’s the art.”
Jordan felt that chemistry at the Juliet auditions, too: “John came up to me and said, ‘Who do you like?’ and I said, ‘Lilly hands down!’ We had the best chemistry, and like he was saying we trust each other and therefore it shows.”
Ask Thomas and Jordan whether it’s a big deal that City Rep has cast two African-Americans as the leads in one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays, and they are unequivocal.
“For Palm Coast?” Jordan says with a sardonic laugh. “Yeah!”
“It’s absolutely a big deal,” Thomas says. “In the theater world, especially when it comes to African-Americans and other minorities, it’s hard to get parts because honestly — we have ‘Hamilton’ and ‘In the Heights,’ but with diversity, sometimes some people are scared to take that challenge. So, I was happy when I got the email (to audition) from John to see (switches to faux astonished voice) ‘Oh, Romeo is an African-American!?’ I was like (loud voice) ‘Whaaattttt?’
All of her friends were astonished when they found out two African-Americans are playing Romeo and Juliet, Thomas says: “We don’t see it a lot. Yes, we have come that far but . . . .”
Sbordone does not dispute his young leads’ assertion that their presence in the play is a big deal – except to note that in the specific context of City Repertory Theatre’s history, having two black leads is “no deal at all,” he says. “City Rep is gender blind. We are racial blind. I know it’s a big deal, but it’s so commonplace for us to do this.
“When we did ‘Crowns’ (a play about African-American women told through the hats they wear to church) when I was at Flagler Playhouse, the Ku Klux Klan wanted to boycott, and that was 10 years ago, 12 years ago. But to me this is — meh.”
Sbordone turns to address his lead performers.
“Your mother and father don’t seem to have any problem with you being black,” he says, to howls of laughter from Jordan and Thomas.
“Directors like John are very rare in Orlando,” Thomas says. “So, when I get to work with people like John, I get happy because it’s like ‘You guys step outside the box! You go outside of what you normally see.’ And that’s the fun thing about doing shows like Shakespeare, because there are always ways of interpreting them and bringing a new light to them.”
As Sbordone has proclaimed many times over the years, stepping outside of the box (insert joke about a black box theater here) is part of the raison d’être of City Rep. He has no hesitation that “Romeo and Juliet” can make the journey from 16th-century Verona, Italy, to 1950s Brooklyn, and that flashes of that era’s pop and doo-wop music can combine with ye olde queen’s English to tell the tale of one of the world’s greatest love stories.
“All right, let me get on my high horse,” he says. “As an artist, you make choices and you go with the choices. If it’s liked, that’s terrific. If not . . . . But is the work good? Is the process good? Maybe 30 or 40 years ago I would wonder more about what do people think, but now it’s ‘This is fun, this works.’
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the opening done with the boys the way we’re doing it: They’re being clowns. They’ve got this morbid friend saying (switches to a moaning voice) ‘I’m in love! I’m in love!’ and they’re just smacking him around. They’re teenagers for heaven’s sake, so let them have that part — and all the lines seem to work with it and the relationships seem to work with it. So OK, here’s another way of looking at this play.
“You can go over here and see it done traditionally, but this is another way. We believe what you need is a good script and actors, and then theater happens.”
Sbordone himself will portray Montague, Romeo’s father. The cast also includes Gaston King as Mercutio, Beau Wade as Benvolio, Earl Levine as Friar Lawrence, Victoria Page as the nurse, Bruce Popielarski as Tybalt, Joey Pelligrino as the Prince and Paris, Anne Kraft as Lady Capulet, and J. Walker Fischer as Capulet.
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
City Repertory Theatre and the Palm Coast Arts Foundation present “Romeo and Juliet” Feb. 27-March 1 at City Repertory Theatre, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Palm Coast. Show times are 7 p.m. Thursday Feb. 27 and Friday Feb. 28; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday Feb. 29; and 3 p.m. Sunday March 1. Tickets are $35, PCAF members $25, but all shows are sold-out, with a waiting list in case seats open up. For more information call the Palm Coast Arts Foundation at 386-225-4394.