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Shakespeare, with puppets

Jessica Dann of Hanover (left) and Tony Beal of Hingham rehearse for “Romeo & Juliet’’ with their puppets. Jessica Dann of Hanover (left) and Tony Beal of Hingham rehearse for “Romeo & Juliet’’ with their puppets.
By Johanna Kaiser
Globe Correspondent / May 13, 2010

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Most know the tale of Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers whose brief romance is torn apart by a bitter family feud and their ultimate deaths. Few, however, have seen one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays the way the Teen Conservatory of the Academy of the Company Theatre in Norwell will perform it this week: with puppets.

“I always wanted to do a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ but I was afraid of how to get that sense of innocence across,’’ said Peter A. Carey, the show’s director.

“A 14-year-old Romeo comes across completely different from an 18-year-old Romeo,’’ he said.

Puppets, however, allow the audience to look past an actor’s age and see the play’s “exploration of innocence,’’ said Carey, who developed a 30-minute production as the program director of Lyric First Stage last summer and received a strong response.

“People were amazed. They said no one was going to get it, but by the end, [the audience] was totally silent,’’ Carey said. “People are mesmerized and they start to forget they are puppets.’’

And these are not just any puppets. The iconic teen lovers will be portrayed by puppets in the style of Bunraku, a form of traditional Japanese puppetry that began in the 17th century.

The wooden puppets, which are 42 inches tall for this production, are carved by hand and each requires three puppeteers — one to control the feet, one to control the left hand and support the body, and the lead puppeteer to control the head and right arm.

Traditionally, Bunraku puppeteers specialize in one of the positions, and the voice of all the puppets is done by another actor off stage. For this production, each actor will have the opportunity to be the lead puppeteer and voice the character.

“Romeo is not just one kid. He’s every kid that has made a crazy decision, fallen in love, or went against their parents,’’ said Carey, about his decision to rotate the actors.

Other characters will be depicted by other types of puppets that reflect their roles in the classic play.

Prince Escalus will be a shadow puppet, Romeo’s and Juliet’s parents will be masked, and stick puppets will open the show. These puppets and the Bunraku puppets were made by Sherry Malone, an artist based in Plymouth.

“It’s a different way to explore art styles and community,’’ said Carey, who said he was inspired by the culture of Verona. “It’s not meant to be realistic.’’

A few characters will be played by actors, including Tybalt, who duels with the puppet Romeo. Rehearsing human and puppet interaction has been difficult, Carey said, but the young actors (ages 14 to 18) are quick learners.

“They get confused and giggle at first,’’ Carey said. “It is fun and silly, and even a little scary, to explore that and get lost in that. I tell them: It’s our job to get lost in this. So let’s continue to get lost and tell the story.’’

The Teen Conservatory will perform a 90-minute production of “Romeo and Juliet’’ Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Company Theatre in Norwell. Tickets are on sale at the box office or online, 781-871-2787, www.companytheatre.com.