This is not to say that kids are the only bullies, and this clever little play makes that clear with a girl who becomes a bully, at least in part because her self-centered mother (Christina Rios) bullies her. She is Gwyneth (Dasia Vence) who assumes she will be cast as Juliet in her high school production of "Romeo and Juliet". In fact, everyone assumes that the auditions are just a formality, including Gwyneth’s sassy gay friend, Tyson (Leo B. Ramsey) and her “three witches” Carmen (Aevion Dancy), Khadua (Rachelle Martin) and Kayla (Zoë Achilleus).
The only one who isn’t aware that the role isn’t really available is new girl Julie (Abigail Oldham) who shows up for auditions and is laughed at. The kids quickly start calling her “Squirmy” as a nickname, and Gwyneth gives her a quick verbal smackdown to let her know who the queen bee really is. But Julie is resilient, even though she evidently doesn’t have much support at home (she alludes to the family’s having moved in the middle of the school year because her mom is ill). She determines to submit a You Tube video of Juliet’s death scene to her teacher (Rachel Fenton), but the bully squad gets hold of it and it goes viral. The play opens with a video of a news reporter standing outside the school talking about the “possible suicide” of a Stratford High School student that the student herself recorded. Of course, it is Julie.
The mean girls taunted her in other ways, particularly with a fake Facebook page on which they posted nasty, bigoted comments and got Julie in big trouble. How this all works out is the point of the show. A talkback with co-creator/playwrights Christopher Limber and Elizabeth Birkenmeier provided the audience a chance to interact with the actors. Besides the above-mentioned, the students are played by Tyler Smith, Katie Kohler, Sariah Henning and Emily Jackoway, and KDHX’s senior performing arts critic, Chuck Lavazzi, plays a teacher and the school’s head, Dean Duke. The cast also sings some of the material composed by Dave Toretta and directed by Limber. The questions from the audience were on a wide range of topics, but all came down to finding out how much the young people themselves were affected by taking part in this project, and the answer was “a lot.”
Four schools were listed as participating. Most of the actors are students at Grand Center Arts Academy, but Clyde C. Miller Career Academy is represented, as is Oakville High School, and Webster Groves High School. All of the student actors do well, and Oldham, Ramsey and Vance are outstanding. The set and lights well-conceived and executed by David Blake. Prop and furniture changes are handled smoothly by the cast, and much use is made of a triple screen at the rear on which texts (everyone has a cell phone, of course) and Facebook messages and other miscellany are projected. Here is also where we see Julie’s misunderstood audition. It is fun to note the names (Stratford High, Julie’s last name is “Hathaway,” Gwyneth Paltrow played Juliet in "Shakespeare in Love", Dean “Duke,” etc.) and allusions to other plays, particularly "Macbeth". There are also lines from Shakespeare interspersed throughout, and much of the original dialogue is in rhyming iambic pentameter. Director Kohring said she’d been working on the show for a year, and it shows. This presentation is clever and entertaining and will make a real contribution to real-world education through the arts, as it performs at local schools through the end of May.
The Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis has another educational touring show, “Quick Delight 12th Night,” which also focuses on bullying and is themed to this year’s big production of "Twelfth Night (Or As You Will)" in Forest Park. A workshop is available for students accompanying “Quick Delight,” called “Bullies and Brotherhood in 12th Night,” which, according to the press material, “allows students to dissect the bullying behavior in ["Twelfth Night"] and understand how it relates to diffusing bullying behavior today.” It is appropriate for K-12. Also, this is the third year for SFSTL’s anti-bullying education tour which has been enormously successful.
I conducted my own experiment by taking a 13-year-old to the show, and she loved it. She recognized her 7th grade society, and afterward, we had a long talk about the issues highlighted. So, obviously "Winning Juliet" succeeds on every level it aspires to.
Public performances are limited, but there are two more dates on May 3 and 4 at the Little Theatre at Clayton High School, 1 Mark Twain Circle. Visit sfstl.org for information.