The theme for Pioneer Summer Theatre this year is one that will resonate with any audience: children versus their families and cultures. The two productions, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Bye Bye Birdie,” open next week, and to cement the theme and heighten the contrast, they will be staged on alternating nights.
“These plays are both about young people rebelling against their parents, although of course the outcomes are very different,” said summer theater director Andy Felt.
The summer theater has changed this year, getting bigger with more professional personnel. In past years Felt has directed both the summer pieces, but this year he has drawn away from that, hiring professional directors for each of them. Of about 50 people involved in the project, 21 are professional actors, technicians and designers from across the country, and more than half the crew are community members or Marietta College faculty or students, along with a few high school and elementary school students.
The production of the Shakespeare work has been adapted to add local interest, relocated from medieval Italy to antebellum America, with the Montagues and Capulets being set as northern farmers and southern plantation owners, in the years just prior to the Civil War.
“It is set in a small town of the time, not unlike Marietta,” Felt said. The director is Emily Heugatter, associate professor at the University of Central Oklahoma with numerous acting and directing credits, including the American Shakespeare Center, and a national authority on Shakespeare and period styles.
Heugatter, who is familiar with Marietta because her husband is a Marietta College alumnus, said she wanted to deliver a production that suited the area.
“I wanted to give Marietta a story that reflects its own history,” she said. “‘Romeo and Juliet’ is not a political work, but it’s also not just a story about two teenagers who fall in love and are dead a week later. It’s about two people who risk everything to heal a deep division in their families.”
In 1861, just before the Civil War broke out and before West Virginia seceded to join the Union, Marietta was in a location where the Ohio River suddenly became a dividing line.
“Across the river, people suddenly became the enemy, so close but in the middle of this political division,” she said. “It struck me that while in present day our political divisions are not geographical, we are still in a period of deep political and moral divide. I think today there is a lot to be learned from this, about how far we have to sink, what is our rock bottom.”
For the Capulets and Montagues, it was the deaths of their children.
“These plays (the works of Shakespeare) have survived and thrived because they are so human, so universal, they have something to teach us,” she said.
The adaptation also will include a few elements not envisioned by the Bard, such as traditional music – folk, gospel, spirituals, all played and sung by the cast – and combat with period weapons, including axes, rakes and other rustic apparatus.
“Bye Bye Birdie” is an entirely different experience, although it’s about young people, families and confrontation, and it’s set in Ohio. The musical is set in the late 1950s, with a rock star who’s a sort of Elvis Presley-Conway Twitty mashup facing the military draft and doing one last tour before reporting for duty. He overwhelms the girls of Sweet Apple, Ohio, and infuriates the establishment. Love, ambition, jealousy and fame all play into the mix, along with iconic music that includes “Put on a Happy Face” and “A Normal American Boy.” The play was written by Michael Stewart with lyrics by Lee Adams and music by Charles Strouse, won a Tony award in 1961 and was produced as a film in 1963.
The Marietta production is being directed by John Galas, a 34-year-old theater professional from Georgia, whose recent credits include a production of “Young Frankenstein” at the University of Georgia earlier this year.
“We’re in a really good space, final week of rehearsal,” he said Wednesday during a break outside the Hermann Arts Center at Marietta College. “It’s my second time in Marietta – I saw ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ a couple of years ago, and it was a great experience. There’s a fantastic vibe here.”
Cole Mazaher, 26, is originally from Zanesville, and like other actors in the project, plays roles in both shows, being part of the ensemble in “Bye Bye Birdie” with several roles and playing Lord Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. The actors rehearse the plays on alternate days, with an 11-hour schedule each day. He feels more affinity for the Shakespeare role, he said, but he studied musical theater as well at Kent State University.
“I prefer traditional theater but you can reach a wider audience with musical theater,” he said. “The styles are vastly different, you have to take some time to get focused in the morning to keep everything straight.”
“This is great for any actor,” Galas said. “This type of traditional repertory theater is very rare anymore.”
The production includes local people, one of whom is Frances Ryckebosch, a 9-year-old in the ensemble. Her mother, Sara Bir, watched her on stage during the Wednesday rehearsal.
“She’s been in all the school musicals, and after Little Mermaid, Andy Felt told me she might want to audition for ‘Bye Bye Birdie,'” Bir said. “This is a terrific way for Marietta College and the community to interface. She loves it and it gives her independence. ‘These are my people,’ she says.”
The two productions will be presented on alternating days, with “Romeo and Juliet” at the gazebo in East Muskingum Park on June 27, 29 and 30 and July 3 and 7, all starting at 8:30 p.m. and all free. Heugatter said in the event of bad weather, a sign will be posted at the park directing audiences to an indoor site – the Friederich Theater in the Hermann Fine Arts Center on campus.
“It will still be free,” she said. “We just didn’t want audiences to miss these productions because of weather.”
“Bye Bye Birdie” will be staged at Peoples Bank Theatre June 28, July 5 and July 6 at 8 p.m. and June 29 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15, $20, and $25.
Other theater experiences available for local audiences this summer include the Mid-Ohio Valley Players production of “The Crucible by Arthur Miller,” which opens Saturday at the players’ theater on Putnam Street for a six-show run – June 21, 22, 28 and 29 at 8 p.m., and June 23 and 30 at 3 p.m., with tickets priced at $12. The group also is working on a junior production of “Nifty Fifties,” a musical tribute to the 1950s by Tim Kelly and Bill Francoeur, to be staged in August.
Pioneer Summer Theatre, schedule of shows:
•June 27, 8:30 p.m.: Romeo and Juliet
•June 28, 8 p.m.: Bye Bye Birdie
•June 29: 2 p.m., Bye Bye Birdie, 8:30 p.m., Romeo and Juliet
•June 30: 8:30 p.m., Romeo and Juliet
•July 3: 8:30 p.m., Romeo and Juliet
•July 5: 8 p.m., Bye Bye Birdie
•July 6: 8 p.m., Bye Bye Birdie
•July 7: 8:30 p.m., Romeo and Juliet
“Romeo and Juliet” will be staged outdoors in East Muskingum Park at the gazebo, subject to weather and is free.
“Bye Bye Birdie” will be staged in Peoples Bank Theatre, and tickets are $15, $20, and $25.
Source: Pioneer Summer Theatre.