Shake on the Lake’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ready for the road

Jul 27, 2017

SILVER LAKE — As players in the latest Shake on the Lake production go through tests of their costuming combinations and quick-changing abilities, Tré Whitley rips the velcro badge off his black shirt, takes off his police hat and slips on a clerical collar.

The transformation from a watchman to Friar John is one of many that Shake on the Lake is bringing to “Romeo and Juliet” as it tours Western New York over the next three weeks.

Gathered Monday for technical run-throughs under the high ceilings of the Silver Lake Institute’s Epworth Hall, actors move between roles and costumes. They know the story of the titular lovers well, but in re-imaging it, they jump between building sets, recording musical cues and embellishing their costumes.

“Something we look for when we put our cast together is being multi-disciplinary,” said Shake on the Lake Managing Director and co-founder Pilar McKay. “Our actors are not only taking on multiple (stage) roles because we kept our cast small, but they are also doing other theatre arts work.”

Sharon Combs has three hats: costume designer, education director and Lady Capulet; Matt Duncan is doing the play’s music in addition to four on-stage roles; Vinny Mraz is Benvolio and the play’s set designer.

Even Romeo (Zach Lusk) and Juliet (Larissa Jeanniton) both play secondary roles in the touring production.

“We look for people that want to have the entire theatre experience, it’s not just show up, say lines and leave,” McKay said. “It’s about building more of that camaraderie and ownership.”

Shake On the Lake went on tour to five counties last year, and the theatre is expanding even further this summer. Starting in Geneseo on Thursday, the production is hitting eight counties over 15 performances — four in Silver Lake and to locations like the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, Batavia’s Centennial Park and the Morgan-Manning House in Brockport.

Shake on the Lake Producing Artistic Director and co-founder Josh Rice said that by continuing to spread their productions to new settings the product creates excitement within the cast. They want to bring new life in a “creative place-making” at parks, historical societies and communities along the way.

“It’s a live performance that will never be repeated again, and it’s for your community - one time only,” Rice said. “Yes, it’s “Romeo and Juliet” but it’s our “Romeo and Juliet” and it will be different based on every performance and the audience, we play with them, add modern references and song to it. They can see us making it up for the first time right in front of them.”

“Romeo” was Combs’ first exposure to Shakespeare, and decades later, she said her appreciation of the play has grown.

“There’s always new exploration, because you always think you understand something until you break it down into all of its bits and pieces,” Combs said. “It’s a completely different play to me, and we, in our own interpretation and trying to understand why these people are doing the things they do, I’ve come to a new understanding.”

“Romeo and Juliet” will be Shake on the Lake’s first tragedy after launching with the bard’s comedies. Rice said they wanted to bring Shakespeare to rural audiences in an enticing way, and laughter was that bridge.

“Romeo” is a comedy, “ridiculous and fun,” for it’s first three acts, Rice said, before taking the dark and tragic turn familiar to anyone who sat through Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film in English class or the pop-culture filtered through the play’s lines and themes.

Shake on the Lake Associate Artistic Director Chad Bradford, the director for this production, said that as they began to break down “Romeo” in January, they conceived it in the present day. But they felt an “artistic magnetism” toward what he placed as 1961, as the styles and society of the old 1950s and young 1960s didn’t blend so much as clash.

There are touches of beatniks, Sharks and restrained authority figures of Peggy Olson’s early Sterling Cooper years.

“As we talked about, my concept for this started with the idea of walls,” Bradford said from a mobile set of panels and walls. “There was a wall between the old world and new world, and because of fear and ignorance that develops into the hate that builds walls between us.”

“This was an era that really parallels how we are living now and how it was in renaissance times. There’s elements in that mid-century time - our gender roles, our familial roles and our societal roles were all being challenged.”

Bradford, a member of Shake on the Lake since its founding, has now directed four of its productions. His challenge was to find a way to tell the story in a way that was unique to Shake.

His team started on “Romeo and Juliet” in January, taking a 130-page script and through cutting and adapting it halved the piece. Getting to Monday, where design and composition was the focus was a long trip.

Combs said the result is a fast-paced, boiled-down version of the play. They still use swords, daggers and Shakespearean language, but everything is whittled to its point.

“While it’s still flowery, so much of our language comes from Shakespeare that when we boil it down and every speech isn’t four pages long, it’s very easy to understand and it feels more contemporary,” Combs said.

Shake on the Lake 2017 Tour Schedule

July 27 — 6:30 p.m. at Wadsworth Homestead, Geneseo

July 28 — 6:30 p.m. at Williams Park, Dansville

July 29 — 6:30 p.m. at Morgan-Manning House, Brockport

July 31 — 6:30 p.m. at Attica Historical Society, Attica

Aug. 1 — 6:30 p.m. at Arcade Village Park, Arcade

Aug. 2 — 6 p.m. at Centennial Park, Batavia

Aug. 3-5 — 6:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday at Perry Public Beach, Silver Lake

Aug. 8 — 6 p.m. at Yates Community Library, Lyndonville

Aug. 9 — 6 p.m. at Point Breeze/Orleans County Marine Park, Kent

Aug. 10 — 6:30 p.m. at Springville Center for the Arts, Springville

Aug. 11 — 8 p.m. at The Gazebo, Ellicottville

Aug. 12 — 6 p.m. at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, Niagara Falls

By Jim Krencik, The Daily News