Beacon Journal/Ohio.com

Everyone knows the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespearean story of the star-crossed lovers. But most people probably don’t think of the majority of the play as a romantic comedy.

At Ohio Shakespeare Festival, that’s how the classic is being treated, up to the moment, about halfway through, where Mercutio shockingly dies in a duel that was never meant to be to the death.

Director Nancy Cates leads this show in yet another crystal-clear Shakespearean production at Stan Hywet that made every word of the Bard’s play accessible and understandable in the season’s opening night performance Friday.

OSF’s comedic approach for the first half of the production is achieved chiefly through actor Ryan Zarecki as Mercutio, who is relentlessly teasing and bawdy with his wildly funny, over-the-top mockery of his friend Romeo.

Zarecki creates the most energetic jokester I’ve ever seen in a Mercutio, aided by his abundant physical comedy. He amps up the comedy in his highly memorable characterization by picking Romeo up and spinning around with his friend on his shoulders, and even plants a mocking kiss on the angry Tybalt while dueling him.

Zarecki’s highly playful characterization adds to this production’s excellent accessibility by creating a heightened modern-day understanding of lover Romeo (Joe Pine). Zarecki’s Mercutio teases Romeo for mooning over Rosaline, making it clear how fickle young Romeo really is in love — until the moment he lays eyes on Juliet (Tess Burgler).

The show is treated as a classic romance but the action, of course, includes an early skirmish in the streets between supporters of the Montagues and Capulets, families that hold an ancient grudge.

Later, when the insults and challenges between young men Mercutio and Tybalt (Katie Zarecki) escalate to a duel, we clearly see how aggression between young people can lead to irreversible loss and embroil others in a continuingly escalating tragedy. (Note: In contrast to the tragedy to come, audience members should not miss the lighthearted Greenshow, a rollicking time of song and dance preceding the play.)

On to the romance. Husband and wife Pine and Burgler create a sweet and transfixing scene as Romeo and Juliet meet at her family’s party. Burgler stares directly into Pine’s eyes during their entire exchange and their first kiss is especially tender.

Here, and as the dynamics grow between the characters in the famously romantic balcony scene, the fact that Burgler and Pine are a young married couple adds a special beauty to their ardent onstage relationship.

Later, as things begin to go terribly wrong for these star-crossed lovers, their wailing and sobbing in separate scenes as each contemplates losing the other is heartbreaking.

Period costumes by Marty LaConte are gorgeous, from the sweet, youthful pink of one of Juliet’s gowns to an elaborate, gabled hat for Lady Montague (Karen Wood) and the various masks and headpieces worn at the party.

Among other actors to be lauded are Lara Mielcarek as the folksy and lovable Nurse to Juliet, and Terry Burgler — Tess’ father and director Cates’ husband — as the trustworthy Friar Laurence, whose human error leads to disastrous consequences.

Cates creates some remarkable staging as she has Romeo and Paris (Jason Leupold) fighting in the dark inside Juliet’s sepulcher, which makes the scene all the more desperate. Cates also creates a beautifully sad visual as Paris falls and dies, pulling Juliet’s white shroud off of her to reveal Romeo’s beloved to him.

These final scenes of terror and heartbreak are arresting among Leupold, Pine and Tess Burgler. The story’s devastation all plays out outdoors to the droning backdrop of bullfrogs at Stan Hywet’s lagoon.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.