WINONA — Everybody thinks they know the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet.
But not many people know Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” the way Doug Scholz-Carlson, artistic director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, knows it.
“This is my fourth ‘Romeo & Juliet’ this year,” said Scholz-Carlson, who has been involved with productions in Texas and Minnesota. “It’s amazing once you start digging into it,” he said. “There’s so much more there.”
For example, did you know this most tragic of plays is actually quite humorous?
“It’s really a funny play,” Scholz-Carlson, said. “It’s lively, it’s youthful, it’s energetic.” At least until things turn tragic.
But that deeper look at a familiar play is one of the hallmarks of the Great River festival, which opened June 26 with “Much Ado About Nothing.” On June 27, the festival opened Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” “Romeo & Juliet was to open July 3. The festival runs through Aug. 2.
Actors return year after year to Winona for roles large and small in the festival’s plays.
“I think it’s because of the way the company works,” Scholz-Carlson said. “We have six weeks of rehearsal. We can really dig in and explore the plays in depth. You can do the kind of work you’ve always wanted to do.”
Plus, he said, “There are the connections they make with the community. You know the audience, you see them in coffee shops.”
In return audiences this year will see favorites Christopher Gershon, Tara Flanagan, Michael Fitzpatrick, Chris Mixon, Andrew Carlson and Stephanie Lambourn back on the Winona stage, along with several newcomers.
Lambourn returns after a year’s absence to perform the lead in “The Glass Menagerie,” which will be directed by Great River founder Paul Barnes. “We’re really happy to have her back to play this role,” Scholz-Carlson said.
“The Glass Menagerie” is the latest non-Shakespeare offering from the festival. “We’ve always wanted to do an American classic,” Scholz-Carlson said. “We’re a text-based theater company. We wanted to find an American voice to use language in an American way.”
Meanwhile, Gershon and Flanagan, who are married, will play lovers Beatrice and Benedict in “Much Ado About Nothing.” “They’re great together on stage,” Scholz-Carlson said.
And just as “Romeo & Juliet” might have more humor than remembered, the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” Scholz-Carlson said, “actually has a lot more serious elements.”
In addition, in both plays, a character decides to play dead. “In ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ when the friar proposes Juliet should play dead, we say ‘That’s a terrible idea,’ because we know how it’s going to turn out,” Scholz-Carlson said. “In ‘Much Ado’ we think it’s a good idea because we know how it will turn out.”
In any event, with preview performances already up and running, the festival is ready for its 12th season to open Friday. Three mainstage plays, an apprentice production (“King John”), pre-show concerts outdoors, Front Porch conversations, a symposium, the fifth annual Callithump and more — all in the next six weeks. It’s a hectic, busy time for everyone involved.
But, said Scholz-Carlson, “It feels like we’re in the right place.”