Is the story of Juliet and her Romeo merely a tale of teen hormones run amok, or is there something deeper and more relevant going on in this timeless tale?
"There is a price to be paid for hatred," said Ogden actor Nathan Krishnan, 22, who is playing the part of Romeo in a production of one of William Shakespeare's most popular and enduring tragedies, opening Tuesday, Aug. 22, at Kenley Centennial Amphitheater in Layton.
"Romeo and Juliet" is presented by the Davis Arts Council, and its executive director, Kirt Bateman, said the production is an excellent opportunity for the cast and community to "dive into the text of Shakespeare," get swept away by some of his most beautiful language while enjoying a summer evening under the stars with a pair of star-crossed lovers. Plus -- there's sword fighting.
From Tremonton to St. George, Bateman said, Utah offers numerous musical theater productions. But there are not as many chances -- particularly in Northern Utah -- for audiences to get their Bard on. The council hopes to change that by making the famed playwright more readily accessible.
The production is the second in the council's work to sustain an ongoing Shakespeare in the Park series for Top of Utah audiences, Bateman said. Last summer's inaugural production was a staging of one of the playwright's most popular comedies, "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
That production was well-received, Bateman said, and he hopes this year's offering will build upon what they began last year.
"We are feeling really positive about what we are offering to our actors and to our audiences," he said. " 'Romeo and Juliet' was a natural choice for us."
Pick your poison
Layton resident Teresa Sanderson was out shopping for poison vials when she stopped to pick up the phone Monday and chat about "Romeo and Juliet." The famous story about the doomed lovers who take their own lives really wouldn't work without its assortment of daggers, vials and apothecary jars.
Sanderson, who was raised in Ogden, is a board member of the Davis Arts Council and also a noted actress. For this production, she is acting behind the scenes as its producer, as well as its props designer -- hence, Monday's shopping excursion.
As Tuesday's opening nears, Sanderson is understandably a busy woman, but fortunately has surrounded herself with a number of other experienced Top of Utah residents who are bringing their own area of expertise to the production. They include costume designer Philip R. Lowe, set designer Dennis Ferrin, fight choreographer Brad Schroeder, lighting designer Don Wilhelm, sound and stage manager Joe Killian and director Mark Fossen.
"We really do have a killer team," Sanderson said.
Sanderson describes Lowe's costuming as "very light, breezy and cottony" with a timeless feel, while Ferrin's set includes graduated platforms with balconies on both sides of the outdoor stage.
"We get to utilize our stage in a very different way," Sanderson said.
In addition to Shakespeare's sweeping sonnets and heart-rending story, Sanderson thinks the audience will also enjoy the dramatic staging. She noted that Schroeder earned high marks for his work as fight choreographer for Weber State University's recent production of "Romeo and Juliet," as well as his work on Hale Centre Theatre's production of the musical "Zorro."
For some time now, Schroeder has been rehearsing the actors (including one female performer) with dowels and sticks to bring an air of realism and authenticity to the stage fights.
"It's been a fun challenge for all of the actors," Sanderson said. "They don't get to do that every day."
O Romeo, Romeo
The actor playing Romeo is certainly enjoying the swordplay, and in the process gaining a deeper appreciation for Shakespeare.
"The sword fighting has been a lot like playing with Legos," Krishnan said. "It's every little boy's dream come true."
Krishnan was born in Brigham City, raised in Eden and now lives in Ogden. He will be a senior this fall at Weber State University and has been involved in a number of theatrical productions along the Wasatch Front.
This is his first performance in a Shakepeare production, and he is eagerly embracing its challenges.
"Probably the most difficult thing is learning to make the language come to life, make it real and make it understandable," Krishnan said.
It doesn't hurt that his character gets to play off the young Juliet, whom he visits throughout the night in the iconic "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" balcony scene.
As his character falls for Juliet -- played by Sarah Young of Salt Lake City -- Romeo tries to stop the fighting between the feuding families, but ultimately gets pulled into deadly animosity after his close friend Mercutio is killed by Juliet's cousin Tybalt.
Sanderson praises the work of director Fossen, who has taken to heart the message in the piece about how violence is a learned behavior passed down from one generation to the next.
"What happens when we teach children violence?," Sanderson asked, noting that Fossen is utilizing some young actors in the cast to address that question in the opening fight sequence.
"I think it is going to be a beautiful and powerful production," Sanderson said.
Teen angst, true love
Can people really fall in love that fast?
Bateman acknowledges that many people have a love-it-or-hate-it relationship with "Romeo and Juliet."
The two fall in love rapidly and quickly pledge their hearts and lives to one another. Some see this as true love. Some see it as unbridled lust.
Those visceral reactions stem from where one falls on the romantic/realism scale and how one feels about tragic endings in general, Bateman said.
Although Krishnan doesn't argue that there are some definite sparks of passion going on between the young lovers, he believes their love is deeper, more abiding and pure, and Shakespeare's text illustrates that love repeatedly.
"It speaks very clearly of one of the greatest ideologies of all," Krishnan said. "It speaks very clearly of love and in a very poignant way. He (Romeo) is consistent and comes back in the middle of the night to be with her. Ultimately, he gives up his life to be with her."
Beyond the aspects of love and romance, however, Bateman said, there is a broader message in the story, and it still resonates more than 400 years after it was written in 1597 by a younger, and arguably more idealistic, Shakespeare.
"It's uncomfortable to watch what the hate of these families does to them (Romeo and Juliet)," Bateman said. "It strikes today right at the heart."
Every day in the news, Bateman noted, he hears or reads about some new act of violence born of hatred.
"The human race will always have an 'us versus them' mentality." Bateman said. "As long as we continue to categorize 'us' as good and 'them' as bad, then we're always going to create these situations and opportunities for great tragedies."
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”
— “Romeo and Juliet” prologue by William Shakespeare