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Imagine Juliet falling in love with Romeo, another young Italian woman. Imagine two rival political philosophies or houses of thought, conservatism and liberalism, keeping these two young people apart.
Just don't dismiss "Høüses," Whit Hertford's adaptation of William Shakespeare's classic tragedy, as simply a love story.
Instead, "it's a passion story, it's a sex-and-violence-and-drugs story," says the director, who anchored his Riot Act Theatre Company in Salt Lake City earlier this year with "Poor Bastard," a Chekhov adaptation. "These are two people who make some really rash decisions over the course of one night."
The cast features Hertford's wife, Haeleigh Royall, as Juliet, and McKenzie Steele-Foster as Romeo. Making it a story of forbidden love featuring a lesbian couple is aimed to help theatergoers see the contemporary resonance. Or as Hertford says in a release: The whole idea is to scrape away "layers of restoration paint that have kept the story locked behind the museum glass."
The play will be staged promenade style at Kilby Court, with theatergoers moving through indoor and outdoor spaces to take in the action. (Those who can't stand are invited to lean against nearby walls, Hertford says.)
The show's start time has been pushed back to 8 p.m. so the falling darkness will lend atmosphere to the story's final tragic scene, when Romeo is in a blind rage.
And as the story unfolds at the indie music venue, there might be moments when the action has the intensity of a contemporary rave rather than the historical reality of Elizabethan England, the director says.
The script draws upon about 90 percent of Shakespeare's original story outline. The adaptation retains most of the familiar characters, including Mercutio, Benvolio, Tybalt and Juliet's nurse. One character functions as a Greek chorus to move the audience through the action.
Riot Act has future adaptations planned, such as a retelling of Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," about air pollution and whistleblowing, and "Hateful Deeds: Violent Means of a Most Royal Dick," an adaptation of "Richard III."
Hertford, 38, was raised in Los Angeles. He moved to Salt Lake City to attend the University of Utah's Acting Training Program, through which he met Royall, a Springville native.
He went on to earn a graduate degree in directing from The University of Essex and also studied at the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts. The couple launched Riot Act in London in 2015, aiming to reinvent classics through "incision/excavation" while also producing new plays.
The company's aim is to make theater visceral. Hertford hopes the company's shows will be lively enough that people will be willing to leave behind the comfort of their home screens. "Otherwise, it will become a dead art form," he says. "It will be Latin," referring to a favorite metaphor from director Wes Anderson's 1998 film "Rushmore."
"How in the world do we get people to put on their pants, to get in a car and to pay money to see a bunch of theater geeks?" he asks. "Well, you've got to rival Netflix."
Riot Act Theatre's 'Høüses'
For its second Salt Lake City production, the theater company offers a contemporary adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet" that director/adapter Whit Hertford terms "radically modern, immersive and LGBTQA-centric."
When • Preview Monday, June 12; continues June 13, 15, 20, 23, 26, 29 and July 2; 8 p.m.
Where • Kilby Court, 741 Kilby Court, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $19; $17 students, at the door; June 12 is a "pay what you can" show
Info • riotacttheatre.com or firstname.lastname@example.org