There is a case to be made that the works of William Shakespeare are the Talmud of English literature. It is part of the canon — by terms lively and convoluted, contemporary in its concerns yet often obscured by the dust of a dimly understood old-fashioned language. And while we are past the era when Shakespeare dominated our theater and culture as he did a hundred years ago, his work remains a solid and stolid part of our curriculum.
But the works of Shakespeare hold an advantage over the Talmud. When a bad classroom experience has drained the joy from the texts, there is always the bracing experience of the live stage.
And now it’s summertime, and the Shakespeare is free — at least in Teaneck’s Votee Park, at Englewood’s library, and other stages in Bergen County where Black Box Studios will present Shakespeare in the Park, thanks to the sponsorship of the local towns and institutions, including Englewood Health and Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.
“It’s free theater for the masses,” Matt Okin said. Mr. Okin is the founder of the Black Box Studios. “We modernize the settings and the feel, but the language stays the same. Everyone likes a little fighting, a little murder.”
Black Box is presenting “Romeo and Juliet” as “punk rockers versus country clubbers,” he said. (Mr. Okin used a similar punk rock versus Starbucks theme when his student troupe staged “Fiddler on the Roof” several years ago.) He’s staging “Othello” as a story of corporate intrigue. “It tells how one corporation eats itself alive over jealousy,” he said.
Mr. Okin said that understanding the 400-year-old plays is not difficult when they are performed by actors who understand what they’re saying. At Black Box rehearsals, Shakespeare’s words are translated into modern idiom; the words revert to their original form in performance.
“If you have a bunch of well-trained actors, it’s guaranteed you will understand it,” Mr. Okin said. “It’s the exact words, a little edited down. Each show is a little under two hours.
“It’s great exposure to what we do all year round, but for free. It’s the sort of theater we do. It’s very intimate. The audience is very close to the actors. You get to see the type of talent we work with.” Many of the actors are part of the Black Box repertory company during the year.
Black Box started as an after-school acting school. Three years ago, it began presenting professional theater from its own small building in Teaneck, awkwardly positioned in the parking lot of a kosher grocery store. Now it has moved out of that building and is looking for a larger space, probably in Englewood, for the fall. Meanwhile it is rehearsing in the park.
“We’ve done about seven shows a year in the last three years,” Mr. Okin said. “In our fourth season, starting in September, we will do five main stage shows.
“The theater school is the lifeblood of what we do. The classes are for ages seven to adult. There’s acting, improv, writing classes, drama, musical theater. We have about 55 students and hope to get to our height of 70 again.
“In ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ you have a bunch of Black Box students represented. One of the more advanced teams from our group is acting in it. A couple of teens are doing all the tech. And our assistant director, Ben Shanblatt, is in college now but only a couple years out,” Mr. Okin said.
“I started as an actor in one of the teen productions around 2013,” Mr. Shanblatt, 19, said. “I’ve been doing music and acting for them since.” Mr. Shanblatt lives in Fair Lawn and is a student at the School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in the New School in Manhattan.
He said his experience with Shakespeare had been limited before this summer. “I read a few plays in high school,” he said. “I did a reading of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when I was younger.
“During the rehearsal process for ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ a lot of us were surprised by how modern and relevant the material felt. Putting it into a more modern context really felt pretty natural. I can tell you the way we physicalize things makes the text clearer. Everything is presented in a clear way, so it’s easy to understand.”
Besides directing and acting in the play, Mr. Shanblatt performs on electric and acoustic guitars. “I allow the music and acting choices to connect,” he said. “I feel them as one thing. A lot of time I’m doing both at the same time.”
Stacy Cancelarich plays Lady Capulet. It’s her first professional performance. A native of Teaneck who now lives in Hillsdale, she discovered Black Box five or six years ago, when her son, Sam, then in high school, was looking for an acting opportunity. She signed up for adult acting class with Black Box. “I did six shows with them,” she said. “Then Matt Okin asked me to audition for Shakespeare. They thought I was ready to move on up. So this is my first time with the pros.
“It’s great. It’s a lot of fun. But it’s much more of a time commitment — it’s a lot of fun. I’m learning a lot. If you’re a runner and they put you with faster runners, you learn to run faster. It’s a wonderful thing to do something brand new in a second or third part of your life. It’s great to discover something I love and always wanted to do and didn’t do.
“I don’t think I was a fan of Shakespeare in high school. The language was challenging. When we started rehearsals, I didn’t fully grasp all of the beauty of it. Now I love it. Once you get into it, it’s really great. I find myself wanting to use Shakespeare on a daily basis at home.
“Speaking in iambic pentameter is fun. Much less Jersey-like.”