With an audience-interactive version of “Hamlet,” a “Romeo and Juliet” that addresses economic disparity and a “Cymbeline” that he likens to “Game of Thrones,” Christopher Owens seems to have an interesting take on the Bard for the Virginia Shakespeare Festival.
In his 12th year with the series, Owens seems most excited about “The Gravedigger’s Tale,” which recently saw its world premiere at the renowned Folger Theatre in Washington. The Williamsburg production will be the show’s second staging.
“It’s just a wonderful, fun reinvention of the Hamlet story as seen through the gravedigger of that plot,” says Owens, who serves as the festival’s producing artistic director.
Starring Helen Hayes Award-winner Louis Butelli, “Gravedigger” is an audience-interactive, one-man show. Instead of being staged in Phi Beta Kappa Hall’s main space, it will unfold in a smaller, 140-seat theater to maximize the show’s intimacy.
Owens compares the show to Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” which tells the story of “Hamlet” from the viewpoint of two minor characters.
“It’s the same sort of idea,” Owens says. “It’s looking at this plot and these characters through the eyes of a smaller character.”
With “Cymbeline,” director Megan Behm aims to play off of the popularity of such television series and movies as “Game of Thrones,” “Merlin” and “The Huntsman: Winter’s War.”
“We are in a pop-culture era that is interested in fantasy,” Behm says, “so I wanted to meld the old world fantasy mysticism of British legends with a newer, flashier, sexier spin.”
With forbidden love, an evil stepmother and an appearance by the god Jupiter, “Cymbeline” is an action-packed play that jumps among London, Wales and Rome. The play begins with King Cymbeline banishing his adopted son for marrying his daughter Imogen without his permission, launching a tale of love, innocence and jealousy.
Once one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, “Cymbeline” fell out of favor in the 18th century. It’s staged infrequently, but seems to be experiencing a resurgence.
“People are circling back to ‘Cymbeline’ as an interesting and untapped Shakespeare play,” Behm says.
With exaggerated medieval costumes and large set pieces — including at least one 12-foot-tall hedge — “Cymbeline” aims to stand out from your standard Shakespeare offering.
“My hope is that it’s magical,” Behm says, “but it’s got a little rock ’n’ roll in it.”
Rounding out the festival is “Romeo and Juliet,” which will be staged in its traditional period but with a small twist. While the Capulets and Montagues may still be alike in dignity, they’ll differ in prosperity, with the Capulets much better off than the Montagues.
For Brittany Anikka Liu, who stars as Juliet, the show begins almost like a musical with its playfulness. “It really is half-comedy, half-tragedy. The first half, we kind of want to fake everyone into thinking this is a romantic comedy,” the recent College of William and Mary graduate says. “Everything changes once Mercutio is killed, and it kind of goes downhill from there.”
As the one Shakespeare play practically everyone knows, Liu touts its universal appeal: “There’s something for everyone. There’s tragedy and there’s comedy, so it’s a whole emotional rollercoaster. It’s timeless.” S
The Virginia Shakespeare Festival runs through Aug. 7 at Phi Beta Kappa Hall, 601 Jamestown Road, Williamsburg. For information, visit wm.edu/as/vsf/index.php or call 757-221-2674.