Sirens, thunder, dive-bombing cicadas — all part of the challenge of putting on outdoor theater in Oak Park

With “Romeo and Juliet” under way, we take a look at the challenges to staging outdoor shows at Oak Park Festival Theatre.

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Rachel J. Jones and August Forman star as the namesake characters in Oak Park Festival Theatre’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Josh Darr

At about 10:30 p.m. last Friday, Juliet had had enough.

Thanks to an unnecessarily complicated plan that had gone awry, she’d found her teenage husband dead. Not being a plenty-more-fish-in-the-sea type, she snatched up his dagger and plunged it into her own chest.

On cue, an ambulance siren began to wail in the distance — as if an unsuspecting passersby had witnessed the drama in the park and, to be safe, called 911.

A little earlier in the evening, just as Romeo’s buddy Mercutio collapsed (also the victim of a knife crime), celebratory fireworks crackled in another part of the village.

‘Romeo and Juliet’

When: Thru Aug. 17

Where: Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Avenue, Oak Park

Tickets: $15-38

Info: oakparkfestival.com

Such is the unpredictability of a stage and actors exposed to the elements: rain, wind, bugs and any passerby who happens to wander into Oak Park’s Austin Gardens between now and Aug. 17.

“That’s part of the magic of this experience and of being outdoors,” said Peter G. Andersen, the director of Oak Park Festival Theatre’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

“You’re not crammed in like a sardine. You can look at the stars for a moment, have a glass of wine, turn to your friends, talk about what’s happening. It’s our job to do a good job, to hold your attention.”

Andersen surely wouldn’t mind then if, while watching Juliet calling out to Romeo from her balcony, the audience’s gaze drifts to the fluttering treetops above her — to perhaps ponder the meaning of all our human fretting beneath a vast, inky canopy.

Oak Park’s outdoor theater, now in its 49th year, begins each year with one certainty: A stage must be built — and from scratch. This year, that job fell to Evan Frank, who was the designer on last year’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“It’s like building a theater in that sense, in that you’re creating the stage as well. It’s an opportunity in a lot of ways because it allows us to create the shape of the stage that is right for the performance. This show is semi-thrust. So the audience gets pretty close,” Frank said.

The set is all overlapping rectangles in faux industrial concrete — like a Mondrian painting in 3D. It suits the actors’ modern-day costume garb.

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A very modern take on Verona is depicted in Oak Park Festival Theatre’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Josh Darr

Last year in mid-July, 13 tornadoes swept across the Chicago region, including one near O’Hare International Airport, not too far from the theater site.

“It was heavy winds in Oak Park. So making sure the set is sturdy is very important as well,” Frank said.

As if to illustrate that point, not long after our chat, a wind gust picked up the black tent in which actors gather before going onstage, flipping it on its side.

For the first week, rehearsals are held inside — because there’s still no stage.

“That cocoon period is really important so (the actors) are not worrying about having to project or having to be big,” Andersen said. “Once we step out onto the stage, it is about all that beautiful human work you’ve been doing — how do you now make that bigger and bigger?”

Romeo won’t shriek in Juliet’s ear when he should coo, but he should remember to turn toward a floor or hanging mic so that his voice reaches the folks farthest out on the lawn, the actors say. There is no seating capacity on the lawn and about 200 people typically attend shows. Theater goers can bring whatever food and drink they like and folding chairs too, although the theater provides a limited number of plastic lawn chairs.

Belinda Bremner, who plays Montague in the current production, has been a professional actor since 1976 and working with the Oak Park festival since 2008.

“There are nights when it’s easier than others. Humidity eats consonants. So when it’s muggy, just hit your consonants,” Bremner said.

This year, the pre-run audience included thousands upon thousands of red-eyed cicadas.

“I was reaching in my backpack the other day for a piece of gum before a scene, and all of a sudden ... I retrieved a very large, very damp, freshly emerged cicada,” said August Forman, who plays Romeo. “This [was] the summer of cicadas. As an actor, having to play dead on stage while having bugs actively dive bomb you has been a treat.”

Last year, the unwelcome visitor was smoke drifting down from the Canadian forest fires. Two rehearsals had to be moved inside and one show canceled.

And, of course, in the recent years before that there was COVID, which meant readings and performances on Zoom, masks, then constant testing.

The real fun — the true test of an actor’s mettle — starts when the lights dim (actually, it’s still light when the curtain goes up) and the chorus sets the scene: “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, ... “

Today’s actors have it relatively easy, said Rachel J. Jones, who plays Juliet.

“Back in the 1600s, if Shakespeare’s audience didn’t like something, they were throwing chairs,” Jones said. “That energy is so interactive and that’s what makes Shakespeare’s text so timeless — so many of the characters are communicating directly to the audience.”

If there’s an interruption — say, an airplane flying overhead — actors must know how to seamlessly pause a scene or even ad lib — if the moment feels right.

If it’s done well, the audience eats it up, veterans of the festival say.

Bremner remembered the opening night of Amadeus in 2013, when court composer Antonio Salieri is about deliver a big, showy monologue: “And there is thunder starting in the background and (the actor) just stopped, he looked up at the sky and went, “Not yet!”

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