Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Staging Shakespeare for the teenage set

I had the lead role in the fifth-grade St. Patrick's Day play at Saint Frances of Rome School. But my career ended when I threw Thomas Thouey off the stage for saying something nasty about my momma. I could have been a Shakespearean actor, but I was banned from the stage and relegated to the stage crew.

As a boy I had a passion for theater. I could create any fantasy and be anything as long as I could imagine it. Theatrics is a composite of every emotion, sound and gesture with a language that resonates life. I would purchase standing-room-only tickets at the Broadway on West 53rd and see “West Side Story” over and over.

Shakespeare gave us 38 plays, 154 sonnets and numerous poems. His phrases are commonplace in our daily vernacular. His depiction of drama and use of language is unparalleled. Shakespeare grabs your emotions and leaves them in your throat, rendering an aficionado spellbound and speechless.

Last month one of my former students, Bianca Saleebyan, invited me to Shakespearience, a production of the Theatrical Education Group. I attended as a chaperon for Susan Moore's 10th-grade La Cañada High School English class. I was enthralled by the production value and the direction of Justin Eick, chairman of the visual and performing arts department at LCHS. Of course, I wanted to meet Justin.

“Justin,” I said, “why am I drawn to Shakespearean theater?”

“In his plays we experience the depth of human emotion, the highest love and the deepest depravity,” he answered. “Shakespeare told stories of star-crossed lovers and ambitious kings in a compelling, dramatic and timeless fashion.”

La Cañada High School has a treasure trove of artistic talent. Justin is part of this treasure. He possesses a master's in fine arts from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and from Moscow Art Theater School. His credentials are impeccable, but I am drawn to him because of his passion. Art is only art when it stirs our emotions. Justin had me enthralled.

“Acting has enhanced my life,” he told me. “It enables me to explore the full extent of my imagination. It is the unbridled imagination of an actor that creates art.”

Justin brought clarity to Shakespeare by explaining that his stories are derived from the classics. Ovid's poem, “Metamorphoses,” completed in 8 A.D., evolved into “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Similarly, “West Side Story” is a recreation of “Romeo and Juliet,” and the movie “When Harry Met Sally” evolved from “The Taming of the Shrew.” “The Lion King” characters Timon and Pumbaa parallel Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from “Hamlet.” Shakespeare has influenced the way we speak and think, and his masterpieces inspire contemporary art.

Justin is the artistic director for Shakespearience. His direction creates a contemporary approach to Shakespeare, enhancing his appeal to teenage audiences. The character Puck, played by Jeremy Gurkin, narrates the adventures of the acting troupe as they stage a series of scenes from Shakespeare's most famous plays. Gurkin uses “lazzi” interludes, which tie the stories together and create a play within a play.

My conversation with Justin unfortunately ended. I didn't have a chance to ask him if I could play Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar.” I dream of invoking Caesar's spirit and avenging his death. With a Shakespearean dialect I would speak, “Cry ‘Havoc!' And let slip the dogs of war.”


JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

Copyright © 2019, La Cañada Valley Sun
EDITION: California | U.S. & World