Andrew Ahrens leads the way Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespearean tragedy about star-crossed lovers caught in the middle of a blood feud, may be a kind of milestone for the Indianapolis theater scene. The play’s cast represents a rich blend of local and regionally imported acting talent. Of special interest for the local audience is the presence of such veteran players as Chuck Goad and Robert K. Johansen. -Andrew Aherns and Blaine Hogan during rehersal for ‘Romeo and Juliet’- But, given the household structures of the warring Montague and Capulet families, the play’s multigenerational character has also provided director Priscilla Lindsay the opportunity to showcase what begins to look like the next wave of young performers. Most notable in this case is Lindsay’s choice for Romeo, Andrew Ahrens. “He is such a man-boy in this part,” Lindsay says appreciatively. “He’s very much in touch with the romantic side of himself and I think to be able to access that and then put it out on stage is not common for someone his age.”
Ahrens is that actor directors long for — a bona fide leading man. At once athletic and thoughtful, he possesses the physical gifts to simultaneously convey Romeo’s impulsiveness and poetic gravity.
In the final semester of his senior year in John Green’s Theatre Department at Butler University, Ahrens is enjoying his second leading role on a local stage in less than a year. Last fall he was cast in the lead of Circumference of a Squirrel at the Phoenix Theatre — a one-man show that required him to single-handedly carry a two-act play about a man trying to put his life together following a divorce.
“The Butler program has been an amazing way to get classically trained,” says Ahrens of a department that, in the past couple of years, has emerged as a significant incubator for the local scene. It was just a little more than a year ago that another member of the Romeo and Juliet cast — and a Butler alumnus — Blaine Hogan scored a major hit with Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Phoenix.
“Dr. Green is so involved with the students,” Ahrens says, “and he’s willing to do whatever we feel comfortable with. There’s a wide range of theater and acting skills for us to learn — and a great faculty team.” Ahrens grew up in Cincinnati. He was a jock through most of high school, but his mother finally prevailed upon him to get involved in dramatics. “I just fell in love with it as time went on,” he says. When it was time to think about colleges, Ahrens decided “on a whim” to audition at Butler. He was offered a scholarship, which sealed the deal for him.
Making the leapAt Butler, Ahrens found a theater curriculum that emphasizes an adventurous approach to theater and performance art that — in John Green’s words — is about discovering what the theater of the future might look like. “It’s been fun to experiment,” Ahrens reflects. “Things that you’ve never touched before — it makes everything fresh and very real.” It was a form of preparation that enabled him to perform his tour de force in Circumference of a Squirrel. “That was really tough,” Ahrens says, looking back. “That was a lot of stress. It was a challenge I knew I had to step up to.”
Ahrens’ Butler training would also seem to have enabled him to make the leap from the college stage to the pros with relative ease. “You’re a little more independent and a little more responsible” is how he characterizes it. “All of a sudden you’re here and you’re expected to perform in a certain way. You’re also receiving money for something that you love to do.”
Another leap has involved covering the distance between a contemporary work like Circumference and classical drama. “You have to bring Shakespeare into your daily life and make it matter,” Ahrens explains. Circumference, with its sudden mood shifts, was good training for Romeo, he says. “It was funny one moment and emotional the next. R and J is all about reacting to the moment on stage. Not to overdo it — that’s what I’m trying for to the best of my ability.”
Director Lindsay is pleased with Ahrens’ work. “I ask him to do something and he processes so well and is then able to give it to me, which is also unusual.” Lindsay acted with Ahrens two years ago in the IRT production of Ah, Wilderness, directed by IRT Artistic Director Janet Allen. “We knew that he was a wonderful talent and when we decided last year to do Romeo and Juliet he was our first choice.”
Another fan is Ahrens’ fellow cast member, Robert K. Johansen. One of this city’s most versatile and in-demand actors, Johansen takes a certain pride in Ahrens’ development. “He is a man after my own heart — he looks up to me and I look up to him. He’s a young gun,” Johansen laughs. “We see each other in the gym all the time and we push each other. I’m in my upper 30s and he’s in his early 20s — it’s a wonderful thing on both ends.”
Johansen, who is also an adjunct faculty member at Butler, has found the mix of veteran actors and newcomers in this production stimulating. “You have people in this cast who have done a lot of shows on the IRT stage and then you have this batch of new guys and it’s so nice for us to feed off of their energy. You can see the wonder in their eyes every step of the way.” Johansen thinks the Butler program has helped bring a new class of talent on the scene. “John [Green] runs a great program over there and he brings the best out of an actor … I think if you’re willing to go to the deep water that John sends you toward you can use that in any style of theater — and that’s what I wish every actor knew.”
As for Ahrens, after graduation he says he’d like to test the local market for a year or so. “I’m going to try and see what Indianapolis can bring me for the next year.” Then it’s probably off to Chicago. “New York is a dream,” he says, “L.A. is a dream. Chicago is a dream — but maybe a little closer.”
WHAT: Romeo and Juliet
WHEN: Saturdays, March 13 through April 4. Public performance times: March 13 at 5:30, March 20 at 5:30, March 27 at 5:30, April 3 at 2:30 and 5:30, April 10 at 2:30 and 5:30, April 17 at 2:30 and 5:30 and April 24 at 2:30 and 5:30. All times are p.m. American Sign Language Interpretation and Audio Description will be offered on April 3 at 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: Indiana Repertory Theatre Upperstage
TICKETS: Tickets may be ordered online at www.indianarep.com or by calling the IRT ticket office at (317) 635-5252. Regular ticket price for adults is $29, ages 30 and under are $18, and students and youth are $12, with discounts available for groups of 10 or more. To book a group or a special event, call (317) 635-5277, ext. 4876.