Would you like this play less sad? Then this take may make you glad. Middle-schoolers merge Shakespeare with Dr. Seuss in a classic play.
Jonah Schmitz, an eighth-grader at the Anoka Middle School for the Arts, wouldn't normally be drawn to Shakespeare's classic "Romeo and Juliet."
But through the school's production of "The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet," by Peter Bloedel, he has a newfound appreciation for the work.
The play, which runs from Friday through Sunday at the school, reimagines Shakespeare's tragic love story as a comedy through the lens of Dr. Seuss, the beloved children's book author.
Schmitz portrays Romeo as an overly dramatic teenager who wears his heart on his sleeve. His hammy performance earns him plenty of laughs.
The whole experience "teaches me that as an actor, Shakespeare is more than just long, boring shows, that you can have fun with it," he said.
That's the message the show's director, Jefferson Fietek, hopes others get, as well.
The play helps "introduce young people to the world of Shakespeare in a way that's not intimidating," he said.
Once the drama has been "Seussified," it becomes upbeat and family-friendly, with physical and verbal comedy, he said.
Parts of the story get a total overhaul, while certain cast members channel some of Dr. Seuss' most memorable characters, like Cindy Lou Who, the Lorax and the Cat in the Hat, among others.
To achieve the Seusslike feel, artistically, "we looked at every Dr. Seuss book we could get our hands on," Fietek said.
This comes through visually, with a brightly colored set that recreates a town square in Verona. It matches the illustration style of the Dr. Seuss books.
The same goes for the costumes, he said.
Blending the language
The play is a blend of the language of Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss. It's about "finding the happy go-between the two," Fietek said.
In rehearsal, he said, "We talked about what is it that the characters are saying and how to convey that to the audience."
The lines have a deceptively simple sound, but to pull it off, the 22-member cast has worked hard to enunciate, "to make the words sound crisp and clear, but with emotion," Fietek said. "Because it's so rhythmic, it's easy to get that sing-song sound."
The idea is to keep it real, so the audience doesn't tune out.
It's especially tricky at the end, when the cast goes through the entire play again, but in fast-forward. After the 3-minute-long version, they repeat the action, but this time backward, and even faster.
Part of the humor in the script comes from numerous pop-culture references, some of which Fietek updated.
For example, football, hairspray, e-mail and Instagram, the social photo-sharing platform, get a mention.
At one point the cast dances to "Gangnam Style," the video that exploded across youtube last year.
Getting into Seuss character
Tommy Corbey, an eighth-grader who plays Lord Monotone, tried to imitate Dr. Seuss' ungenerous villain, the Grinch, on whom his character is based.
It just so happens, he said, that "I love the movie, 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas.' I love Jim Carrey in it. What he can do with his body and voice is amazing to me."
So, he took his cues from the movie.
Similarly, Lydia Erickson, a seventh-grader, found her inspiration for Juliet from Disney princess movies. "That's how I got this skippy, light and airy person," she said.
"Making it rhyme makes it flow better. It's hard but fun to make sure your words don't get jumbled up," she said.
Even though it's technically challenging to rewind the action, "It's fun to try to do the role backwards," she added.
Adding to the onstage action
A handful of other school departments are leaving their own stamps on the production.
For starters, in the lobby gallery, people can take in all kinds of play-inspired artwork or read through modern-day Shakespeare quotes, all from students.
Meanwhile, a violin and cello quartet composed of advanced orchestra students at the school provides preshow entertainment.
In the Renaissance-style ensemble, each instrument has "an independent voice," according to Julie Schmidt, an orchestra and music composition teacher.
The student musicians "Seussified" their instruments, adorning them with feathers, pipe cleaners and paper, she said.
Another group of students composed original music to liven up the chase sequences and the special ending.
Students watched cartoons to get a sense of "How do I create the sound of a chase?" she said.
Fietek hopes the play entertains and maybe even motivates some young people to tackle the real "Romeo and Juliet."
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.