Oklahoma Shakespeare explores the conflict and comedy in 'Romeo & Juliet'
At the heart-rending end of one of William Shakespeare's most iconic plays, Prince Escalus declares, "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."
Although the tragic tale literally introduced the concept — or at least the terminology — of "star-crossed lovers," Bryan Lewis actually appreciates the more lighthearted aspects of "Romeo & Juliet."
"One of the things that people probably tend to think when they think of 'Romeo & Juliet' is that it's just very sad. And that's actually not the case. Most of the play is written as a comedy ... and so what I'm finding through rehearsing is there's so many opportunities to laugh," Lewis said.
"I'm a huge fan. I think it's definitely one of my favorite plays of all time. It's probably one of a lot of people's favorite plays."
The recent University of Oklahoma graduate is starring as Romeo in Oklahoma Shakespeare's new production of The Bard's enduringly popular drama about a young couple whose romance gets tragically entangled in a poisonous family feud. The show opens Thursday — just in time for Valentine's Day — with performances continuing through March 1.
While the venerable company last presented "Romeo & Juliet" in 2016 on the Myriad Gardens' Water Stage, Oklahoma Shakespeare this year will perform the familiar title for the first time in its intimate Paseo Arts District space.
"Shakespeare gives a lot of his characters asides where they talk to the audience. ... And it's really cool because the audience is involved," said Nikki Mar, who is playing Juliet. "You're so close in that space that you can't help but feel like you're there, like a little fly on the wall."
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Although it is arguably the best-known love story in Western literature, Oklahoma Shakespeare's 2020 season opener delves into deeper concepts in laying out the star-crossed circumstances for the scions of the warring Montague and Capulet clans, said Kathryn McGill, the theater's executive and artistic director and co-founder.
"They're (from) two monied families that are looked up to by the community, so people do take sides. ... There's an escalation, and now it's got the whole city up in arms," McGill said.
"Honestly, when we pick a season, we're not trying to thematically do it. But what we do focus on is what's going on in the world. ... This year, it's conflict. It's others. It's us and them."
A junior at OU, Mar said Shakespeare's high-stakes exploration of young love — not just the intensity of first romance but the fervency of familial fidelity — remains relatable to audiences more than 420 years after The Bard penned it.
"When you're really young, everything is just such a big deal, but I also think that their feelings are very honest. I mean, they feel what they feel. You know when you're in love, and they're just so passionate about each other — and they know it right from the start. ... In their world together, they're perfect for each other, and it's just the circumstances that make it so tragic," said Mar, who is making her Oklahoma Shakespeare debut.
"It's an enjoyable story, I think, because you get to kind of live this drama through them. You're like, 'Ooh, this is juicy, so heightened, so extreme.' And then in the end, the show's over and you're like, 'OK, well, I'm going home. That was fun.'"
The actors are working with director Kris Kuss to ensure the title characters feel well-rounded and are not overshadowed by their star-crossed circumstances.
"I think that Juliet, she's a really smart girl. She's young, and that's why I think she makes such sudden, passionate decisions. ... But she makes a lot of literary references and references to various gods and goddesses, so it's pretty obvious that she's well-read," Mar said.
"You already know what happens ... but if it's a really good production, you get very invested in the characters and then you kind of forget that the end happens for a little while. And then all of the sudden, it's the last scene, and you're like, 'Oh, wait, dang it. I forgot.'"
Performing in "Romeo & Juliet" for the first time, Lewis said he wants to show the layers of his character.
"Romeo is not a guy who's just 'woe is me,' just whiny and mopey. ... He's actually very passionate. He can get very angry; he can get violent. There's a lot of times where he's joking around with his friends. ... In my opinion, he's a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, and it's just the circumstances of this play that he's put in, you get to see the worst come out of him," said Lewis, who has previously appeared in Oklahoma Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" and "Richard III."
"He's a very, very complex character. There's a lot more to him than just the relationship of Romeo and Juliet — and that's been a lot of fun getting to explore that."
Oklahoma Shakespeare's 'Romeo & Juliet'
When: Thursday-March 1.
Where: Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park in Paseo, 2920 Paseo.
Tickets and information: www.oklahomashakespeare.com or 235-3700.