This year’s Shakespeare on the Ridge features a very special production of “Romeo and Juliet” by Mudlark Theater, a children’s theater group that provides more than meets the eye.

Mudlark’s mission to treat young actors the same as professionals comes across in this “Romeo and Juliet,” particularly because the actors share their youthful age with the characters, as Shakespeare wrote them.

Production photo from “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo by Austin Oie.)

“Very, very rare for the actors to be playing the actual age of the characters,” Mudlark Executive Director Michael Miro says. “The actor playing Juliet is actually 14, and it’s almost never done that way. Primarily because most 14-year-olds aren’t up to it. Our production is really going to capture the youthfulness of the story.”

In addition to his role with Mudlark, Miro is the founder of the Ridgeville Cultural Development Foundation, responsible for the organization of Shakespeare on the Ridge. The arts festival began in 2010 and, as the time, consisted only of Arc Theatre’s Shakespeare production. The following year, Mudlark’s performance was added to round out the series. Now, both young and experienced actors take the stage in Ridgeville, providing a nuanced experience for audience members.

The young actors aren’t at all intimidated by the older actors, or by Shakespeare’s complex syntax. “Some of these actors are now on their sixth Shakespeare, even though they’re only in high school,” says Miro. “The actor playing the Nurse has played Puck, Viola…it’s her sixth show. There’s an incredible experience level now because they’ve been doing it many summers.”

Mudlark actors in rehearsal.  (Photo by Austin Oie.)

“It’s great for both groups to see each other,” Miro says. “There’s a blurring of the ages. You see how special Evanston is. As great as Chicago Shakes is, look at this really accessible Shakes going on in my neighborhood with a picnic.”

Miro colorfully describes the atmosphere of the festival. “What’s special [about Shakespeare on the Ridge] is that it just kinda draws people in… there are people out walking, they see a show setting up, and they’re like, “I gotta check this out.” Suddenly they’re sucked into a really engaging Shakespeare production.”

“Romeo and Juliet” is a likely candidate for drawing people in. Though performed at countless Shakespeare in the Park setups all over the world, Mudlark’s production is one of very few to use actors of an age appropriate to the story.

“Our actors are really young, it’s first love, all-encompassing passion. Something that is going to make the story feel very fresh.” Miro’s enthusiasm shines through every word. “When you’re 14, first love is life and death in your mind. The tragic highs and lows — from walking on air to ultimate despair — all happen within, well within our version, 90 minutes!”

“Romeo and Juliet” runs July 23rd through July 31st at Ridgeville Park, 908 Seward Street, in Evanston.

Read more about Shakespeare on the Ridge with Arc Theatre.

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