Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Bard: Romeo Had Juliette

Lou Reed: Romeo Had Juliette

My guess is that there are more songs that reference “Romeo and Juliet” than any other Shakespearian work. So many songs are about love and its various permutations, and “R & J” is, to my mind, the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays because most of us have experienced first love, and can easily understand the idea of falling in love with someone that they shouldn’t. That is easier to identify with for most of us than, say, being a member of royalty. Or killing a member of royalty. Or being confused with your long lost twin and having to disguise yourself as a member of the opposite sex.

So, there is West Side Story, the Bard’s tale transposed to a turf war between dancing and singing gangs in New York in the 1950’s, or “The Cinema Show,” (discussed above) which sets it in England in, I guess, the 1970’s. And there is the Lou Reed adaptation posted here, set in the gritty New York of the 1980’s. This version is part of Reed’s brilliant New York album, in which he and a group of incredible musicians paint an indelible view of the city during a difficult time, when money was tight, drugs were rampant, and crime was endemic. The music is tight, the lyrics are sharp, the songs are memorable, and if you somehow don’t own this album, you should.

I lived in New York during that time, and although I was mostly spared the bad stuff, you couldn’t ignore it. Of course, New York is also a hotbed of Shakespeare, with productions of his work almost constantly in theaters, most famously the Shakespeare in the Park shows each summer in Central Park, featuring top performers and usually interesting direction.

Now, I live in a community a little north of the city where, remarkably, Shakespeare is an integral part of the fabric of life. Spearheaded by my friend Peter, an incredibly talented director of children and teenagers, he began by offering workshops where kids would learn and perform scenes from Shakespeare plays. I’m proud to say that both of my kids were involved at the start, and what makes Peter’s approach special is that he makes sure that the kids understand and appreciate what they are saying. So that they are really acting, and not just reciting lines. I remember reading Shakespeare in high school, where it was unfortunately treated as something difficult and off-putting, and I regret that I never got the appreciation of his work at a young age like my kids and their friends.

These workshops, due to the vision of our local schools foundation and the YMCA, pushed by my friend Barbara, grew into regular productions of Shakespeare plays in the schools, starting at the elementary level, and in an incredibly popular summer theater camp, culminating in our own Shakespeare in the Park outdoor productions, featuring casts of children and teenagers. Peter and his crew do not dumb down the language, and the kids, as kids usually do, rise to the challenge. He often has fun setting the plays in different times, including my favorite, As You Like It, set in the 1960’s. He commissioned one of my son’s friends to write original music for the show, a band of high school students performed the music, including some period pieces, during the play, and my daughter belted “Somebody to Love,” channeling her inner Grace Slick. (If you are interested in having your mind sort of blown, check out what this still young composer is doing now--Orkinpod). The summer performances are a highlight, and draw big crowds.

Not only that, but a couple of summers ago, two recent high school grads, and alumni of Peter’s troupe, formed their own theater company, generally for adults (although they have worked in a few kids). The first summer they produced A Midsummer’s Night Dream, (which my kids were in) and last summer was The Tempest. Also produced outdoors, these productions were sophisticated and well-acted, even considering the shoestring budget that was available.

I’m proud of my community for supporting such amazing theater and I wanted to give credit where it is due. And if my friends read this, and inflate the blog’s page views, so much the better.

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