The Bard, by the book

Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare, nowadays, is usually staged with a nod toward post-Elizabethan times. This past year, the Foothill Theatre Company and the Sacramento Theatre Company mounted Wild West versions of Shakespeare comedies, and Beyond the Proscenium Productions put a Middle Eastern spin on Hamlet. California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda defines its mission as “reimagining the classics,” with multiracial casts and modern dress.

Indeed, it’s rather rare to see “Elizabethan” productions in doublets and pumpkin breeches.

Christopher Uchman-Douglas is out to change all that, starting this weekend, in Folsom. He plans to open Romeo and Juliet, the first offering by a new venture he’s dubbed the Sierra Foothills Shakespeare Festival (not to be confused with the similarly named Sierra Shakespeare Festival, an autumn event in Grass Valley, staged by the Foothill Theatre Company).

“We are doing the play traditionally,” Uchman-Douglas said, “the way it was intended to be portrayed. We don’t need to reinterpret what it was, because the stories were made for a time period, and they had their own values, their own lessons to be learned.”

It starts with period costumes, reflecting 16th-century Italy and England. Romeo and Juliet also has abundant swordplay, so Uchman-Douglas said he’s brought in a martial-arts expert to train the cast with rapiers. “We want people to believe these fights are real,” he said.

Uchman-Douglas has a background in Renaissance fairs and stunt work; he performed for two years as a knight at Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament, an attraction near Disneyland where customers become lords and ladies at a banquet, observing jousts and swordfights.

The drive for historicity extends to “ushers, extras, concessionaires … we’re putting them in 16th-century clothing, to get the theatergoer lost in the idea of being there,” he said.

He wants audiences to understand that in Juliet’s time, a daughter “was considered property” to be married off by her father, who would chose a husband to advance the family’s fortune and social position. (What’s love got to do with it?)

Uchman-Douglas is not an absolutist. He’s using women to play women. (In Shakespeare’s day, young men played female roles.) And he’s using electric lighting and sound equipment.

Nineteen-year-old Alyce Hartman plays Juliet, described in the text as being 13, while 21-year-old Eric Egan plays Romeo, who’s 17. Rodger McDonald, a veteran of Music Circus shows, plays Lord Capulet. Roseville’s Jason Bortz, an actor-director with Aestus Films, directs.

Performances will be in a 500-seat outdoor amphitheater, but this won’t be a picnic-basket-with-wine event. The venue is part of a public high-school campus (though the fest is not school-related); state law prohibits alcohol. Seating will be in resin chairs.

Shakespeare festivals are now legion and come in many different sizes and levels of expertise, such as the huge Ashland festival (now nearly year-round); the polished, professional summer fests in Orinda and Santa Cruz; local semi-pro events (like Sacramento Shakespeare, run by the Sacramento City College theater department); and tiny community events. Only time will tell where this new startup fits on that spectrum and how the venture will fare with audiences.