Sweet sorrow 

Oklahoma Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet celebrates love in spite of a generational cycle of violence.

Romeo & Juliet runs Feb. 13-March 1 at Oklahoma Shakespeare. - APRIL PORTERFIELD / PROVIDED
  • April Porterfield / provided
  • Romeo & Juliet runs Feb. 13-March 1 at Oklahoma Shakespeare.

Romeo & Juliet

1Feb. 13-March 1

Oklahoma Shakespeare
2920 Paseo St.
okshakes.org
405-235-3700
$16-$30

For approximately the 10th time in Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park’s nearly 35-year history, a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life. 

Romeo & Juliet runs Feb. 13-March 1 at Oklahoma Shakespeare, 2920 Paseo St. William Shakespeare’s tragic romance, in which the title characters find passionate love despite their families longstanding hate for each other, has been staged, adapted and reimagined countless times since it was first published in 1597. Shakespeare’s version was based on Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet,” which was based on a French translation of a story by Italian writer Matteo Bandello. Director Kris Kuss said the play is “always a crowd favorite,” but audiences tend to overestimate how well they know the story and its characters.

“People love it,” Kuss said. “Even if they’ve never read it, never seen it, they still seem to know something about it. … A lot of things that people assume they know about the show, they actually don’t. … It’s become so part of our cultural consciousness that we have these tropes and clichés for these characters, but they don’t actually know the story. I approach it as the director that we’re going to tell the story the way the way it’s written, and very often, that alone is enough of a surprise for the audience at the beginning.”

The intensely passionate Romeo (played by Bryan Lewis), for example, is not just a “whiny, lovesick character,” and Juliet (Nikki Mar) is more “clever and driven” than she’s often given credit for.

“A lot of times, people see Juliet as this very innocent and somewhat naive personality, whereas in fact she’s actually very witty, incredibly smart and cunning and not given over to just her emotions but actually very careful in planning and the work and the effort that she goes through to pursue her own future and to claim her own destiny in the way that she wants,” Kuss said.

Though simply presenting the play as written remains compelling and even surprising for audiences, Kuss said Oklahoma Shakespeare tries to find new layers in the text of any play it presents.

  “We’re always looking at these works, wanting to reexamine them, because we always have to ask ourselves the question as a company that is staging works that are at this point over 400 years old, ‘What purpose does this still serve for us?’” Kuss said. “In our production, we’re looking at questions of violence, not only between individuals, but threats of violence and hate and anger that extend out to a community, to an entire people group, and the interpersonal strife that happens there. I think that’s something that we can still relate to today. We still see it all the time on the news. … We want to tell the story that illuminates the damaging aspects — how it not only hurts individual, but it hurts the entire community.”

Romeo and Juliet’s romance escalates the feud between their influential families, perpetuating a cycle of violent revenge that threatens all of Verona, Italy. 

“Everyone is constantly walking around on a razor’s edge, where at any point we could step over into strife and conflict,” Kuss said. “For example, the majority of our characters are always carrying a knife on their belt. They always have a weapon on hand. So what does that do to someone psychologically when weapons are just a part of their entire existence, all the time? If they didn’t have the weapon and they got angry, that would maybe just lead to a shouting match or something like that, but now that they have the possibility to actually incite violence on another human being, psychologically that could escalate things incredibly fast. The passions that guide these characters can so quickly vacillate between violence and hate and love and passion.”

Although Oklahoma’s permitless carry law allowing adults to carry guns in public is not the production’s intended target, Kuss said the play’s themes concerning impulsive violence are relevant.

“These characters,” Kuss said, “are always walking around with weapons, and that’s going to have an effect on the way you perceive the world. When you come across somebody who you have a beef with, if you’re going about unarmed, it’s very different than if you carry a sword, a knife, a gun, whatever. If you have a weapon on you, it suddenly alters that interaction, that altercation.”

Kuss, a trained stage combat director certified by Dueling Arts International, said any time physical violence is portrayed onstage signifies a moment when “words can no longer resolve the issue.”

“I don’t want to give it away, but the audiences are going to get a little bit of a unique perspective with our show,” Kuss said. “We’re a little bit limited in what we can accomplish with combat, but we’ve got a really neat concept that I think the audiences will really enjoy, that will heighten the moment. It’s almost as if the audience can see and reflect on the violence while the characters themselves are being carried away in it. … It’s necessary for telling this story, but we don’t do it in celebration of the violence but, rather instead, as a cautionary tale against this kind of violence.”

An irreversible chain of events triggered by a violent act rapidly moves the play to its seemingly unavoidable tragic end.

click to enlarge Bryan Lewis and Nikki Mar play the title characters in Oklahoma Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. - APRIL PORTERFIELD / PROVIDED
  • April Porterfield / provided
  • Bryan Lewis and Nikki Mar play the title characters in Oklahoma Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.

“What happens when characters are moved to action and they commit to actions without thought or planning or before someone else can intercede?” Kuss said. “We want the audience to experience that feeling that these characters are barely trying to keep up with the action and it’s just keeping a little bit ahead of them. At the very beginning of the play, they’re referred to as ‘star-crossed lovers.’ They are a pair that the fates have come against, and it’s almost as if the circumstances of the universe are leading them just beyond their control, and they’re just kind of tumbling towards this inevitable fate.”

But Kuss said he believes Romeo & Juliet has continued to enthrall audiences for more than 500 years not because of its famously sad ending but because of the potential for a happier one. 

“We want to believe, deep down, that when two people find each other and they find a like soul, things will work out for them, even though this story, we know that it is a tragedy,” Kuss said. “We watch the play over and over again wanting to believe in hope for these characters, that they will end up together in the end, that love will conquer all. And it’s only in those last moments when they fail that it becomes a tragedy. … Even though they die in the end, the message still comes across that it is that love, that connection, that forming of a bond that we should strive and work for and fight for, even if we fail. That’s what makes life worth living … and we should not just give in to a generational curse of hate and violence. I think that’s something that resonates with all of us deep down. We want to believe, we want to hope, we want to strive. Even if this story fails, maybe the next Romeo and Juliet that come along, they will succeed, and we can break the cycle.”

Tickets are $16-$30. Call 405-235-3700 or visit okshakes.org.

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