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Kansas City Shakespeare Festival's play about 'hatred and feuding' fits the moment

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Heart of America Shakespeare Festival
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Jess Andrews and Evan Cleaver play the star-crossed lovers in Heart of America Shakespeare Festival's "Romeo and Juliet," June 14 - July 3 in Southmoreland Park.

After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival returns on June 14 with "Romeo and Juliet." The festival celebrates its 30th anniversary of outdoor shows in Southmoreland Park.

“I always say, 'You know, you gotta eat it like a bunch of grapes and let the juice run down your chin.’” That's Sidonie Garrett, describing one aspect of her role as executive artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.

“Language is everything when it comes to Shakespeare,” she said.

Garrett, who directs the summer production each year, said she always plans three or four years ahead. But she tries to program works that resonate with social issues and what’s happening around the world.

“In a time of divisiveness,” Garrett said, “a play that’s about longstanding hatred and feuding” such as “Romeo and Juliet” seemed timely.

“Remember, it is half a romantic comedy and half a very serious tragedy, so it’s very human in that way,” she said. “And I hope we can all enjoy it for everything that is and also remind ourselves: Let’s get along. Let’s find ways to come together.”

Playing the doomed young lovers are Jess Andrews as Juliet and Evan Cleaver as Romeo (yes, he’s the son of Congressman Emanuel Cleaver and civic and community leader Dianne Cleaver).

“It’s a dream role for me to come home, where I was born and raised and play this iconic role in front of my friends and family in this city that I love so much,” said Cleaver, who is based in Los Angeles, California.

Cleaver said he and Andrews talked through their approach with Garrett before and during rehearsals, which started on May 24.

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Heart of America Shakespeare Festival
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The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival's "Romeo and Juliet" cast (including understudies for the first time) met on May 24 for their first rehearsal. COVID restrictions were in place, including several COVID tests a week and required mask-wearing.

“We find nuance, we find humor. We find our own way to tell this classic tale,” he said. “And this idea of returning to a time in life when we thought we were invincible — that buoyancy of youth.”

Shakespeare’s plays incorporate blank verse as well as rhyming iambic pentameter. Andrews said this makes the lines — nearly 120 for her role as Juliet in an un-cut play — a little easier to memorize.

“It's like you're memorizing a song and so it has a rhythm,” Andrews said. “And you feel it in your body and you feel the rhythm in your voice. And that is very helpful, but yes, it is a lot of lines.”

After two weeks of indoor rehearsals with the cast, crew and understudies (for the first time this year due to COVID-19) running through lines, as well as fight sequences and dance choreography, rehearsals on Tuesday moved to the outdoor stage at Southmoreland Park.

“We had our final run-through in the rehearsal hall. It was like, we have a show now,” Garrett said. “We just need to get it to the stage. We have to stage it out there, move slowly back through it."

She added, "Hope it doesn't rain on us, and just keep going.”

Heart of America Shakespeare Festival's "Romeo and Juliet," June 14-July 3, Southmoreland Park, 4600 Oak, Kansas City, Missouri. Admission is free. Gates open at 6 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show; plan to arrive early, or reserve blanket spots or chair seating ($25) in advance.

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