If producing a version of “Romeo and Juliet” that will surprise audience members sounds like a daunting feat, Robert Shields says that’s because it is.
“The problem with Romeo and Juliet is that it’s the one play that’s associated with Shakespeare,” says Shields, a 2012 Cal Poly Pomona alumnus who’s directing the play for the Southern California Shakespeare Festival’s 14th season production.
Shows of the play are set for 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24-Sept. 9 at the Cal Poly Pomona Studio Theatre and Sept. 13-15 at the School of Arts and Enterprise in Downtown Pomona.
Shields says he wants take one of Western culture’s most universally recognized stories and add something new to it, and he wants to do it by bringing the violence found in the play to the forefront.
The result, he says, will be more than the flowery story of star-crossed lovers that most people might associate with the tale. For Shields, true love begets true grit.
“The goal is to produce a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that has a lot of realism in it,” Shields says. “So in order for the love in it to be profound, the violence has to be as well.”
While the details of what it means to emphasize the violence in “Romeo and Juliet” are under wraps, there are violently feuding families and no less than five deaths for Shields to work with.
The Southern California Shakespeare Festival (SCSF) is a professional acting company open to outside talent, but it tends to attract talent who are connected to the Cal Poly Pomona community – be they current students or alumni, such as Shields.
SCSF Artistic Director Linda Bisesti, who is the Department of Theatre and New Dance’s head of acting, taught Shields during his career at CPP.
“It’s great working with him and he knows what he’s doing,” she says. “He’s young, but well seasoned and has a lot of experience with Shakespeare. I’m probably more excited about this than most other seasons because I love this play, and it’s interesting how [Shields] put it together.”
A milestone for SCSF, the company will feature nearly 50 current students assuming acting and production roles.
Theatre student Samantha Avila will play Juliet, taking on her second lead role in a production since the Department of Theatre and New Dance’s “Real Women Have Curves” in April.
“This is probably the biggest opportunity for me so far,” Avila says. “When I read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in high school, I never believed that I’d ever get to be Juliet. I put my heart and soul in any character I do, and I deserve this role. All the hours I put in have led me to this point, and this will be a new step.”
Avila says she admires Juliet because she sees the character as a strong woman who makes her own decisions.
“A lot of people see Juliet as someone who’s innocent and naïve, but I see the opposite,” Avila says. “She knows what she’s doing and her passion with Romeo is so strong that she feels she has to take her own life when he dies.
Even during the famous balcony scene, Avila says, Juliet doesn’t make things easy for Romeo and instead plays hard-to-get to force Romeo to prove his worth to her.
Agreeing with Avila, Shields adds that he sees the women in Shakespeare’s best-known work as more in control than many people may think.
“A lot of the female characters are empowered in this piece,” he says, “and we’re making sure we’re emphasizing that these characters aren’t just subservient to the male ones, but actually moving the story along and influencing the world around them.”
SCSF also celebrates the return of its Second Stage Series on Sept. 1 and Sept. 8. The series’ performances occur directly following the end of “Romeo and Juliet,” and features new playwrights and stage readings of contemporary and classical works.
Tickets to see “Romeo and Juliet” are $20 general admission and $15 for students, senior citizens and Cal Poly Pomona faculty and staff.
Visit. https://www.cpp.edu/~scsf/performance-calendar/index.shtml for more information and a full calendar of events.