In 12 years directing the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, Christopher Owens has reached a point where repeating plays is inevitable.
He tries not to repeat plays more than once every eight or nine years, and when repeating a play, he makes certain choices.
"You do feel like you don't want to just resurrect it," Owens said. "You want to find something else thematically in the world that we're in this year, as contrasted to eight years ago, that you think this play can touch upon."
Last presented in 2007, "Romeo and Juliet" opens the Virginia Shakespeare Festival's 38th anniversary season on June 29. Owens and the cast have worked to make a familiar tale feel novel, surprising.
Therein lies the beauty of theater, and even more, of Shakespeare.
"Every show is fun, but Shakespeare even more so," said cast member Robert Ierardi. "It's the words, you know. You just can't wait to say those words, and figure them out."
The words always seem to reveal something new.
Joey Ibanez, an actor based in Washington, D.C., trained in classical theater, and this is his third time portraying Mercutio in 11 years.
"He's really fast, and he's much quicker than I can be," Ibanez said.
His first time in the role, Ibanez said he simply tried to keep up with Mercutio, taking metaphors at face value.
"But now, I'm asking, and me and Christopher are asking, why does he say these things? And taking the time to endow the metaphors with more … life experience about him," Ibanez said. "It's unbridled wit born from experience, and I wouldn't have been able to do that when I first did it."
Owens has directed "Romeo and Juliet" multiple times. This time, he decided to create disparity between the two houses, with the Capulets practically dripping wealth and the Montagues much more down to earth.
"I dare say eight years ago, I might not have thought of economic disparity as an interesting theme for 'Romeo and Juliet,'" he said, "whereas I do think today, there's a resonance in that for our current conversation."
Owens also worked to highlight the story's extremes. It starts very light, very funny, he said, turning without warning into one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies.
"Let's face it, pretty much everybody knows the ending of this show," Owens said, "but if we're successful with the comedy, that you almost feel like you don't see it coming."
It's interesting, in a year that marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, to experience the Bard's everlasting relevance, particularly within "Romeo and Juliet."
"It allows the actors and the audience to fall in love that recklessly, all over again," Ibanez said. "Climbing a balcony wall, you know, you do that in real life, you might get arrested. But you watch someone else do it, and you're like 'Ah, yes! That's beautiful. Go for it! Go for it!'"
The festival follows one of Shakespeare's most well-known romances with perhaps one of his least.
"Cymbeline," among the Bard's final three plays, follows the forbidden and tumultuous love between Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline of Britain, and Posthumus.
It's a fantastical tale, complete with a plotting step-family, long-lost siblings and disguises. So Owens and director Megan Behm, a D.C.-based professional, decided the tale deserved a fantastical setting.
The play is set originally in the ancient period of Roman Britain, but Owens said the two decided the production better fit a medieval world. Think "Game of Thrones."
"It's medieval, but at the same time, it's not sort of just museum medieval, but rather a more fantastical medieval," Owens said.
"It may feel a little operatic," he said, "in a good way."
Save for the heroines of each production, cast members are the same. And in "Cymbeline," they've largely been cast in roles much different than "Romeo and Juliet."
For Ibanez, it's his second time in the role of Posthumus. Much like Mercutio, he's found more depth in his character this time, particularly in his character's heartbreak.
"In being able to mine and go to those emotional places … now I feel much more adept at it," he said. "First time around, I was kind of afraid to go to those places, and this time, I feel a little more encouraged. And I feel more daring."
Currently, the scuffed black floor of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall's studio theatre is crisscrossed with tape. Red, green, blue, purple, yellow strips mark stage dimensions and set pieces for both main stage productions, a visual reminder for cast members during rehearsal.
But rehearsal space will soon become performance space, the tape peeled and a thrust stage constructed for "Gravedigger's Tale."
Hoping to do something special for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, Owens worked with Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., to bring the brand new, one-man production to this year's festival.
"The Gravedigger's Tale," developed and directed by Robert Richmond, retells "Hamlet" from the Gravedigger's perspective.
But audiences shape the story.
Sitting on three sides of the stage, they'll find pieces of bone scattered around, each bone tagged with a question. The Gravedigger, portrayed by Louis Butelli, responds in Shakespeare's words, at once foreign and familiar, with some music woven in.
"It changes a little every night, depending on how the audience plays with him, and what he's doing with it," Owens said.
Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.
Romeo & Juliet (Mainstage) – 7:30 p.m., June 29-July 2 and July 6-9; 2 p.m., July 3 and 10
Cymbeline (Mainstage) – 7:30 p.m., July 14-16 and 20-23; 2 p.m., July 17 and 24
The Gravedigger's Tale (Studio) – 7:30 p.m., July 27-30 and Aug. 2-6; 2 p.m., July 31 and Aug. 7
All performances in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, 601 Jamestown Road.
Season Ticket: $64
Available by phone at 757-221-2674, online at wm.edu/boxoffice or in person at PBK Hall Box Office, 601 Jamestown Road. Box office hours June 28-Aug. 7 are 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday and noon-2 p.m., Sunday.