Ever sit around wondering exactly what set off the Montagues and the Capulets? What happened between these ordinary folks that launched a war, leaving a slew of them dead, including Romeo and Juliet?
Well, maybe you haven’t given it any thought. But S. Abramhoff Shipley, an award-winning Seattle, Wash., playwright, has. And, she thinks she has the answer.
Shipley’s conclusions can be found in her new play "StarCrossed," on stage at the Players’ Ring through Feb. 20.
Shipley was in Portsmouth last weekend for the national debut of her piece. Speaking by phone, she laughs even before launching into the tale of how it was a Washington writer came to premiere her work on the opposite coast.
She sets the stage with a bit of background. Both Shipley and writer Evie Jones, of Kittery, Maine, are members of an online international woman’s playwright organization, she says. Jones is co-owner, along with David Mauriello, of Soul Soup Productions, a theater production company.
"One day (Jones) was housebound. I think it was a snowstorm. She wrote, ‘Please someone send me something to read!’ … I sent along ‘StarCrossed,’" Shipley says. "After she read it, she e-mailed back the most lyrical request to produce it."
"I got so excited about it and stayed excited," says Jones. "I couldn’t wait to read it again, which I did, many times. And each time, I got more out of it. It was lovely.
"I contacted David and said, ‘I just read a play that is marvelous. We just have to produce it.’ He cut me off and said, ‘No way, no matter what it is.’ … I think he said, ‘Even if it were Shakespeare, I wouldn’t have time.’ I said, ‘Funny you should say that.’"
What Jones received was a comedic take on a prequel to Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet." It is a wonderfully imaginative view on the feud’s source, she says.
The tale was born of Shipley’s love for the bard’s work.
"I was thinking one day, what was the most interesting question that had to do with his work? I always wanted to know what the feud was about … what was so extreme that it kept the children apart," says Shipley. "Shakespeare was such a great writer that I thought it was surely in the play if I just looked."
Her quest began. She sought out different takes on the tale, "endless films, plays and readings."
"I figured it out," she says. "You had to go to the complete text. It was like a detective mystery."
Careful to keep the story line secret, Shipley explains she found the answer in the parents’ dialogue. It pointed at an earlier romance, a generation back from the Shakespeare tale.
"I found it - then I wrote it. It was so much fun, more fun than a playwright should be allowed," she says.
She describes this latest work as "sort of a romantic adventure, full of laughs and tension. It is a hot-blooded and wildly romantic perspective on the misadventures that led to the vendetta, with a big mystery solved, which is always a nice feeling."
Shipley, who studied under William Gibson ("Miracle Worker"), has more than 20 plays to her credit. She is the recipient of the Dramalogue "Play of the Year" Award for her comedy "Caryatids" and was a nominee for an NAACP Image Award.
Billy Butler directs the local production. The actors are Rachel Sacks, Jason Bolduc, Amanda Collis, Matt Cost, Joel Smith, Rob James, Tana Sirois and Dinah Schultze.
"It’s pretty sexy and pretty compelling," says Shipley. "But I don’t want to give away the secret. What’s the fun in that for the audience?"