Kent State University at Trumbull Theater is lightening up by going to war.
"The Romeo & Juliet War," a comedy written by Boardman native Michael Dempsey, opens Friday for a two-weekend run.
Director Daniel-Raymond Nadon said he made a concerted effort to offer a more light-hearted lineup this school year.
Herman Guy as “John Rayburn” and Joshua Eastling as “Phil Templeton” practice a scene in the upcoming production of Michael Dempsey’s “The Romeo & Juliet War,” being held at Kent State Trumbull in Champion.
Tribune Chronicle / Bob Coupland
"To be truthful, I was accused last year of being a bit grim," Nadon said. "We did 'Laramie Project' and then 'Hedda Gabler,' so we went from murder to suicide. I was asked by many people to consider a comedy, so I decided to do all comedy to make up for my foray into the negative."
When he was thinking about shows that would be good for this season, he remembered seeing Dempsey's "Romeo & Juliet War" when it premiered at the Oakland Center for the Arts in 2001. The Oakland commissioned the play from Dempsey, who worked as a writer on such network television series as "Cybill" in the '90s. His novel "Necropolis" was published in 2011. He also has worked extensively in local theater, both as a director and an actor since returning to the Mahoning Valley.
Dempsey said the initial idea was inspired by tales of a rivalry between community theaters in Salem, where one theater group was picketing the other.
When You Go
WHAT: "The Romeo & Juliet War"
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and March 22-23 and 3 p.m. Sunday and March 24
WHERE: Kent State University at Trumbull Theater, 4314 Mahoning Ave. N.W., Champion
HOW MUCH: $10 adults, $8 for students and senior citizens and $6 for children ages 11 and younger. For reservations or more information, call 330-675-8887.
"The idea that people would get so worked up to be picketing the community theater cracked me up," Dempsey said. "Community theater people take their theater very seriously, and the basic element of great farce is people caring so much that they do outrageous things."
Exploring that idea gave him a chance to play with some archetypal characters found at any community theater and what better play to have those rival theater companies fight over than "Romeo and Juliet," the Shakespeare tragedy about young lovers kept apart because of the bitterness between their families.
"The idea developed that both of these community theaters are performing 'Romeo and Juliet' at the same time, and to heighten the stakes they're both competing for the same grant from a local foundation that will be judged from that show," Dempsey said. "The entire town takes sides and gets sucked into this outrageous behavior."
Dempsey said he's reworked the script since the original production. He believes the characters are a bit deeper, and there's more community theater-based humor in it.
"It's especially fulfilling to be able to poke fun at ourselves and explore some of these types of people you see in every community theater, the egos and insecurities and the competitive nature of the people," he said.
Nadon said, "The funny part is we can see a part of ourselves in these over-the-top characters. It's enlightening and fun and a little disturbing to suddenly see the director of one the plays do something I would normally do at rehearsal and have everyone laugh at it."
Both stressed that one doesn't have to be a community theater veteran to appreciate the humor. There are divas and raging egos in the workplace as well, which should make the characters relatable to all audiences.
Knowing that he was adapting the work for a college / community theater, Dempsey expanded the cast to 24 performers. No professional company could afford to do a play with 24 paid actors, but it works perfectly in this setting.
The cast features Daniel Parsons, Hannah Gillespie, Kage Coven, Jenna Cintavey, Herman Guy, Rachel Fowler, Hunter Thomas, Haley Jane Otto, Joshua Easterling, Christine Fowler, Michelle Bayma, Susan MonteCalvo, Pat Rogan, Shane Glaeser, Doug Parsons, Alex Jones, Jacob Glosser, Edward Jordan, Jennet Bertmeyer, Kat Safreed, Jeff Infante, Daniel-Raymond Nadon, Joseph Toto, JoAnn Schuller and Samantha Fink.
"Romeo & Juliet War" may be lighter than last year's productions, but that doesn't mean it's easier to stage. The farcical elements of the script demand impeccable timing. Nadon said he added a week to the rehearsal schedule and pushed the actors to learn their lines quickly so they could focus on timing and repetition and diction and build instead of line rehearsals and blocking.
While the weather largely cooperated and they didn't lose many days to snowfall, the flu ravaged the cast.
"We had a lot of rehearsals with not everyone there, and it's hard to work on timing when actors are missing," Nadon said.
Dempsey is directing the musical "City of Angels" at Salem Community Theater, which opens in April, so he hasn't had as much time as he would like to be involved in the Kent-Trumbull production. As a director himself, Dempsey admitted it sometimes isn't easy watching someone else direct one of his scripts.
"I think I've gotten good at it, but it's inherently terrifying," Dempsey said. "In this case, Dr. Nadon is so good, our sensibilities mesh completely. He has the same zany and ludicrous sense of humor I do. I haven't been worried at all. It's a delight to let someone else do the hard work."