Front & Center: 6.6.18
How often do we think of William Shakespeare’s work as being relevant in the 21st century? He penned plays more than four centuries ago, when kings and queens governed Europe and people’s lives revolved around religion. Those experiences seem very distant from ours, but calling Shakespeare’s ideas obsolete is a narrow view that acclaimed theater and opera director Elena Araoz would like to dispel. She is set to stage one of the Bard’s most beloved tales, Romeo and Juliet, at the Shakespeare Festival in Forest Park June 1 through 24. Araoz says the poignant story of ill fated lovers—tragic victims of ignorance and prejudice—offers strong parallels for modern society, even for St. Louis itself.
The Connecticut native comes to the Shakespeare Festival from New York City, having directed numerous productions in the U.S. and abroad. Also an actor and playwright, Araoz developed her theater craft with prominent industry figures such as Sir Jonathan Miller, Sir Richard Eyre and Darko Tresnjak. “My mentors have taught me so much about Shakespeare,” she notes. “I know how to pay keen attention to the language, make it active on stage and find the author’s sense of humor. People believe that because the words were written so long ago, they will be hard to understand, but they’re actually very modern. You just need to look a little closer at the meaning of each comma and semicolon.”
The main prejudices that come to light in Romeo and Juliet are between the rival Montague and Capulet families, who make misguided assumptions about each other’s worthiness. “I intend to keep this production in the past but make it contemporary in some ways,” Araoz explains. “In Shakespeare’s time, it was easier to imagine parents wanting their 13-year-old daughter to get married. But in the present, we still know what it’s like to be young and fall in love. It’s a natural part of our life cycle.”
She calls Romeo and Juliet “the perfect play for St. Louis right now” because it teaches important lessons about understanding and acceptance. “In the play, the heads of the two powerful families witness fights and murders, but it doesn’t matter to them until their own children are affected,” she explains. “It’s relevant to our society because it asks a familiar question: How much violence has to take place before we change our thinking? We need to be teaching love.”
Araoz is looking forward to presenting this timeless story under the stars. “I’ve directed a few outdoor plays in the past,” she says. “I did a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at a castle in Prague, which was amazing. Much of Romeo and Juliet happens outdoors, so when you present it in a theater, you have to spend a lot of time conjuring up weather and atmosphere. But when your stage is out in the open air, the elements already are there for you.”
She adds, “With this play, I’m interested in creating something new and fresh for St. Louis. Because of local events, it’s not the same show that it would be in New York or California. I’m happy to develop a rapport with designers, crew and actors here because everyone seems to know and understand each other well. I think that makes for great art.”
Visit sfstl.com for information on the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, with performances through June 24 in Forest Park.
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Pictured above: Elena Araoz