Friar John

Friar John, played by Jacki Beltran of Mesa, looks on as Mercution, played by Hannah Van Holten of Gilbert, gets ready to whip Tybalt, played by Chris Valenzuela of Mesa.

Where the devil should this Romeo be?”

So asked Mercutio in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.” It turns out Romeo is on stage at State 48 Theatre Company in Mesa – and wearing a mask, no less. 

While the pandemic has darkened the stages of theaters across the globe, State 48 will premier its reimagined production of “Romeo & Juliet” via high-quality video. 

Instead of Verona, the show – featuring an all-ages cast of 30 actors from across the East Valley and beyond – is set in the Old West. Not only does this give audiences a fresh new look at the story, but it also proved workable with COVID-19.

“When the pandemic hit, we had to rethink many strategies to keep our theater afloat,” said Karli Kemper, State 48’s co-artistic director. “We had the idea to film our productions with our actors in masks and then dub in the audio. This worked well with our youth play, a version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’” 

‘Romeo & Juliet’ director and State 48 co-artistic director Andrea McFeely said that a member of the team suggested the Old West setting and using bandanas as masks. It fit the costuming, kept the performers safe and provided a new twist on the classic story.

“We know that illness lurks in a nearby town – Friar John is quarantined,” McFeely said. “It makes sense that people would wear face coverings to protect themselves from the plague outbreak and bandanas certainly made sense for the Old West.”

“When we move any Shakespeare play out of its originally established location and time period,” she added, “we try to make the switch either meaningful or wildly entertaining – or both. We still wanted it to be ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ but we also wanted to find a way to make masks less obtrusive.”

Performers rehearsed via Zoom for four weeks before coming to the theater to rehearse and film. Even then, actors were scheduled in small groups, wore masks and adhered to social distancing. 

“Getting to film the play was a rather rare treat,” said Madison Desoto, who plays Lady Capulet. “For an actress with minimal experience with film work, this was a fun opportunity to practice and hone skills in a medium that I dream of someday venturing further into. I learned more about the filming process and how actors’ movements and mannerisms must adjust for the screen.”  

Cheyanne Ballou, who plays Juliet, said at home, family members knew when they were rehearsing “they wouldn’t be too noisy in the background or too surprised if suddenly one of us started sobbing – sobbing for acting purposes of course, not frustrations with the process itself.”

The directors didn’t know it at the time, but they cast a real-life couple as Romeo & Juliet. 

“It worked so well because we could be close and take our masks off for our solo scenes, which makes all the difference for a love story,” added Ballou, whose fiancé, Christian Boden, plays Romeo.

“I won’t lie, we were absolutely bereft of ideas about how to handle the romance without any contact. We got beyond lucky,” said McFeely. 

The Old West backdrop comes to life in many ways – including the sets.

The sidewalk was made with real, heavy planks. The fully stocked bar features real swinging doors, creating the look and feel of an old-time saloon. A full bedroom and a balcony with railing – a must for any production of “Romeo & Juliet” – round out the set.

“Our set designer and builder, Kenneth Wilson, lent his considerable expertise in stage and film set building to help us find and create that hybrid look we wanted,” said McFeely. “Cheyanne and Christian spent many an hour with brush in hand. Our Tybalt, Chris Valenzuela, and our stage manager, Katie Arnold, spent almost every night flipping sets. So many members of our cast and crew put in many hours to create a truly fabulous set for this show.”

Added Valenzuela: “It’s one thing to perform a live show with minimalistic scene changes and solid left-to-right run throughs, but it’s an entirely different world when we build entire elaborate settings for various scenes and film them out of order. I believe we were able to create an immersive experience to substitute the live theater we all miss and love.”

The costumes are a combination of thrift store purchases, existing pieces in the theater’s collection and rentals from Costume Connection and individuals’ personal collections of western or pioneer clothing.

“The hardest part was finding boots for actors who had larger feet. Size 14 boots aren’t exactly easy to come by, but we were able to rent a few pairs,” said Amelia Burrell, the show’s costumer. 

McFeely noted, “Juliet’s clothing is purposefully clean white to ensure she always sticks out and to remind the audience that she is only 13 years old. Romeo gets to don a touch of blue to emphasize the romantic nature that colors his interactions with the world.”

Teagan Dinyes, who plays Balthasar, said the filming process “felt odd not having audience feedback when performing and the recording phase felt awkward, but I am glad to have gotten a sort of feel for the filming process.

“It’s nice to have worked with a creative theatre that found a unique, safe way to produce a show during the pandemic.”

Despite the updates, the classic love story remains unchanged. “Romeo & Juliet” tells the tale of an age-old feud between two influential families that explodes into violent mayhem when the young, lovesick Romeo Montague falls instantly in love with Juliet Capulet. 

“We made a decision early on that we were going to ignore gender – or at least not worry too much about it,” said McFeely. “Our Mercutio is female – and that turned into such a bonus – adding some interesting layers to her relationships with Benvolio, Tybalt and Romeo. 

“Our Benvolio is also female, making that relationship with Mercutio, now female, deeper. So, Mercutio dons men’s clothing and Benvolio is a barmaid and dresses like a woman! It seemed appropriate given the nature of the cast in Shakespeare’s day.”

 “Romeo & Juliet” will be presented online as a high-quality video and streamed as a three-part mini-series at 7 p.m. on Sept. 18-20. It will include a live Zoom talk-back with performers each evening.

Those interested in viewing the film can make a payment at state48theatre.com/payment-portal or via Venmo @State-48-Theatre to receive the web link and watch the live stream. The suggested ticket price is $15 for individuals and $40 for families.

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