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Love Hurts

Shakespeare's star-cross'd lovers take their lives--again

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"Never. Never directed it before, but always loved it, and always wanted to do it," director Scott Phillips says, describing himself in relationship to William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which he is finally getting a chance to direct, as the season finale of Sonoma County Repertory Theatre's 2004 Shakespeare in the Park event.

Somewhere not far away, a gaggle of geese begin hissing with frightening vehemence. A car alarm goes off in the distance. A balloon-toting family arrives to set up for a birthday party in the nearby picnic grove.

Phillips loves such auditory background additions, and insists it's all part of what Shakespeare in the Park is all about.

"This is live theater, in the most alive possible setting," he laughs. "It's wonderful."

While a number of cast members work through a dance scene on Ives Park's one-year-old outdoor stage, Phillips stands several feet away from them, watching the players dance, or attempt to, as the foggy early morning light slowly gives way to full sunshine. At his feet, spread out on the dewy grass, is a large rectangle of burlap, on which are laid an assortment of evil-looking weapons: swords and daggers with intricate hilts and surprisingly believable blades.

Later today, once the actors have mastered the steps required in the famous Romeo-meets-Juliet party scene ("She doth teach the torches to burn bright!"), they'll be running through the play's numerous fight scenes. It's funny--for a play that rates as one of the most enduring and tear-inducing love stories ever written, there is an awful lot of death and bloodshed in it.

As everyone knows.

Which brings up an important question: is it possible that there is anyone alive who doesn't know that Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the play? And if everyone does know, what can a director do to the play to make it seem fresh and surprising?

"Actually, I'm approaching it the other way," Phillips says. "I told this to our cast the first day we worked together. I want to approach this play as if no one has ever seen it before, as if it's 100 percent new and nobody knows the story.

"Even if no one knew the ending," he continues, "right at the beginning of the play, the prologue tells you what's going to happen: 'A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life.' It's not like it was ever intended to be a surprise. But I think if we do the play as if it will be a surprise, the power of the piece will come across."

Phillips production will feature a mix of traditional and modern touches: Elizabethan costumes, but with all-American accents; evocative, Elizabethan-inspired music, but with all action taking place on a relatively bare stage against a background of black scaffolding and sheets or red fabric.

"This is one of the greatest stories ever performed onstage," Philips says, "and my job, and the job of the cast, is to present it so that the audience--even if they've seen it 10 times before--will get caught up in it all over again and will still be affected when Romeo and Juliet, right on cue, end their lives."

Phillips returns to the subject of the outdoor setting, one other benefit of which, he says, is its hospitable environment for theatergoing families. When the Rep staged Hamlet in the park a few years ago, even the kids, many of them lined up in the front row with their mouths open, remained silent and awe-struck as that bloody family tragedy unfolded before them.

"They were so involved in the story," Philips says. "It was wonderful. That's why we love for kids to come to Shakespeare in the park. That's why kids 12 and under are free. Even if we've become jaded about a story, even if it's a show we know so well we're getting tired of it, having the kids there with wide eyes is almost like getting to see it for the first time again. The language doesn't seem to be a barrier. They get caught up in the story anyway."


'Romeo and Juliet' runs Friday-Sunday, Aug. 13-15 and Tuesday-Saturday, Aug. 17-21, at Ives Park in Sebastopol. The park opens at 5pm; play is at 7pm. Theatergoers are encouraged to bring picnics, blankets and low-slung chairs. $18; children under 12, free. 707.823.0177.

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From the August 11-17, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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