Love and loss at Shakespeare Tavern

Whether or not William Shakespeare originally coined the phrase, “everything old is new again” at the New American Shakespeare Tavern. The Atlanta Shakespeare Company is presenting its 13th annual production of the Bard’s classic romance “Romeo and Juliet” to coincide with Valentine’s Day.

Running through March 3, this year’s rendition is directed by Andrew Houchins, a veteran of the troupe’s core acting ensemble, as well as an associate producer and education artist with the company. But, with due respect to all of the professional adult actors who have played the famous star-crossed lovers in ASC’s previous mountings of the show, he put a fresh spin on the casting of his version: age-appropriate co-stars.

Houchins tapped Jake West, 17, a senior at North Cobb Christian School in Kennesaw, and Margaret Flock, 18, a senior at the Lovett School in Atlanta, to portray the title roles. He discovered them three years ago at the ASC’s educational program Shakespeare Intensive for Teens, a summer camp that trains high school students in theatrical disciplines and lets them apply the lessons to performing a Shakespeare play.

“What’s so great about working with younger actors is that there’s hardly any level of pretense or ego among them,” said Houchins, one of SIT’s principal teachers. “The kids are there to have fun and to learn all they can. They don’t have any formal training. For the most part, all they have is instinct. There’s a wonderful naivete about them that’s just so simple and earnest, without any artifice.”

As for West and Flock, Houchins said, “Watching them develop from one summer to the next, both as actors and as young people, has been a real pleasure. They have such an openness and enthusiasm about them, such a strong desire to learn. They’re bright and funny and very in tune with who they are, just delightful to work with and be around.

“I’m so impressed by how they’re able to interpret the text (and) to find personal connections to what their characters are saying and feeling,” he said. “For kids this age to be able to express honest human emotions using Shakespeare’s words, that’s really amazing.”

It helped that they were already familiar with the roles, having performed them during the 2011 SIT session. ASC artistic director Jeff Watkins saw that show and liked Houchins’ idea about possibly using them in the current production of the play.

“There’s a whole different resonance to the story, watching it played by actors who are closer in real age to the characters. They’re more in touch and can relate emotionally in a way that’s harder for an older adult to do,” Watkins says.

"They don't have to act young. They are young," said Laura Cole, the company's director of education and training, who oversees the SIT program.

Houchins said it also helped that West and Flock already knew most fellow cast members, many of whom teach SIT classes. Real-life husband and wife Matt Felten and Kelly Criss, for instance, have become mentors of sorts to the young co-stars, having played Romeo and Juliet themselves in 2011 and 2012.

“I think that’s made Jake and Margaret feel more comfortable and it’s given them a genuine support system,” Houchins said.

In turn, the youthful leads help make Shakespeare’s Elizabethan tragedy all the more accessible to a future generation of potential theatergoers or theater artists by giving weekday performances at high schools across metro Atlanta.

As Houchins put it, “To see these kids playing the roles on stage and speaking directly to other kids in the audience, there’s an even stronger sense of connection to the story.”

“Romeo and Juliet”

Through March 3. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 6:30 p.m. Sundays. $15-$36. The New American Shakespeare Tavern, 499 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-874-5299.


“Much Ado About Nothing” (March 7-30)

“Julius Caesar” (April 4-28)

“Hamlet” and Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” (in repertory May 5-June 23)

Plans for the 2013-2014 season include productions of “King Lear,” “Coriolanus,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Troilus and Cressida” and “Macbeth.”