Arts and Entertainment

Bainbridge Performing Arts' ‘Saving Juliet’ re-envisions a revision

I’m so sure, Romeo. Lexi Merriman and Dylan Lehotsky appear in BPA Theatre School’s “Saving Juliet” this week.  -
I’m so sure, Romeo. Lexi Merriman and Dylan Lehotsky appear in BPA Theatre School’s “Saving Juliet” this week.
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Novelist Suzanne Selfors got her first taste of Shakespeare as a teen, when she appeared in a production staged by local theater director Ron Milton.

“That has always stayed with me,” she said. “He introduced me to the language.”

Selfors’ latest young adult novel, “Saving Juliet,” puts a modern twist on the bard’s “Romeo and Juliet.” And after it was published, she got a clever idea.

Knowing that all ninth graders read “Romeo and Juliet” at Bainbridge High School, Selfors contacted Bainbridge Performing Arts Artistic Director Steven Fogell to find out whether he might be interested in adapting the book for the stage. Call it cross-promotion for star-cross’d lovers.

“Well, let me read the book,” he said.

Next thing she knew, Fogell proposed adapting the novel into a play to be performed by the older students at BPA Theatre School; the stage version of “Saving Juliet” premieres tomorrow evening at BPA.

The novel, Selfors’ first foray into teen fiction, thrusts long-time actress Mimi Wallingford smack dab into a real-life version of her latest stage production, “Romeo and Juliet.”

At 17, Mimi is a thespian by lineage, not by choice. Once in Shakespeare’s Verona, she can’t resist the chance to try to revise poor Juliet’s fate, and through the madcap process, craft her own.

Structurally, Fogell said, “Saving Juliet” easily fell into scenes. His first adaptation was long, though – 100 pages as opposed to the 60 pages typical for a two-hour production, and the 45-50 pages typical for a student production.

“I couldn’t give up a lot of those scenes,” Fogell said. “They were just so funny.”

He pulled in director Corey McDaniel, new to BPA and the Theatre School this year, to consult and help trim the script.

The next challenge the two ran into was that they weren’t sure there’d be enough characters to go around for all the students who’d potentially sign up for the class. Their remedy: cast the show twice.

“It makes it a little more of a directing nightmare, but it’s going pretty well,” McDaniel said.

The final casts include students grades five through nine; in a twist on Elizabethan theater, which had males playing females, most of the cast members are girls.

BPA Theatre School veteran Lexi Merriman connected closely with her lead character; just as readers and viewers can draw parallels between Mimi’s experience and Juliet’s, Merriman saw parts of herself in Mimi.

“I really like how she grows during the story,” Merriman said. “Becoming a teenager, you start figuring out what you want to do with your life. I feel like Mimi and I are both trying to figure out what we want to do with our lives.”

That idea gets at the core of what Selfors says she was trying to capture in her novel and in her examination of Shakespeare’s world – one in which people’s lives were so short that they were married off as pre-teenagers, were middle-aged by 20, and often had little say in their own trajectories.

It also underscores the appropriateness of this particular story for a student production.

“That’s what’s at the heart of the story for me,” Selfors said. “These are 13-year-olds. These are children. That’s what I really wanted to convey – (Juliet’s) youth.”

Selfors had no qualms about handing her original text over to Fogell; she told him to “go for it.”

After that, she sat back. Her primary knowledge of the project has come in the form of her own 12-year-old daughter, who has a small role in the play and who has arrived home from rehearsal each week giggling.

McDaniel, for his part, opted not to read the original book, preferring the script as his roadmap. Selfors sees the wisdom in that, too.

“Even if he interprets it in a different light, I’m cool with that. Because it’s a different medium, and it’s going to be a different story,” she said.

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