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An excellent cast has brought one of the world's most popular love stories - "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's immortal tale of intense love and intense hate - to life in a setting that would surely please the Bard himself.

Despite undertones of romance and comedy, "Romeo and Juliet" is nevertheless a tragedy. Shakespeare took the precaution of having the Franciscan priest, Friar Laurence, recite a prologue warning the audience that by the end of "two hours' traffic on our stage . . . a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life," USF founding director Fred C. Adams noted during an orientation session prior to the performance, but for 400 years countless thousands have sat through the entire play, still hoping that - by some quirk of fate - the Friar will arrive in time to prevent the dramatic suicides.But, like the chariot race in "Ben-Hur," the outcome never varies. The only ray of happiness at the conclusion is the fact that the two feuding families finally see the futility of their ways and announce a truce that will bring peace instead of more bloodshed to the streets of Verona.

Ironically, despite its status as a great love story, "Romeo and Juliet" is also one of Shakespeare's more violent plays, with Capulets and Montagues, friends and foes, dropping dead right and left.

Director Anthony Schmitt, in his first stint with the festival, has an outstanding cast of both Equity Association professionals, guest artists and young students.

Among the exceptional performers were Andrei Hartt and Melanie van Betten as Romeo and Juliet, the young Verona couple caught up in the excitement - and ultimate tragedy - of young love. Both have that fresh-scrubbed look of innocence about them, and van Betten really looks 14 years old, even though we know she is much older because her program bio lists such credits as holding a master of fine arts degree in acting from the University of Wisconsin.

A knockout performance also was given by Elizabeth Terry, who played Juliet's nurse with all the broad comedy she could muster. Her characterization goes for the jocular vein in a role that seems like Fanny Brice, Beatrice Lillie and Nancy Walker all rolled into one.

LeWan Alexander also injects plenty of wit into his role as the cynical Mercutio (and it will be interesting to see how he assays a role on the other end of the spectrum - as Aaron, the evil Moorish lover, in "Titus Andronicus," later this week). If you're one of those non-Shakespearean buffs who thinks Capulets are little pain-killing pills, then its time you visited Cedar City for a look at "Romeo and Juliet."

You'll find that - like the Hatfields vs. the McCoys - the real winners aren't the hell-bent-for-revenge families, but the audience. But leave your rose-colored glasses at home.

If you've seen "Romeo and Juliet" before, it's time to look beyond the gold frame and lovely floral backgound (with which we unrealistically view most experiences with young love) and delve into the elements that make "Romeo and Juliet" one of Shakespeare's darker-edged plays.

In the 400 years since it was first staged, "Romeo and Juliet" has been presented in a variety of forms - opera, ballet, film, sculpture, oil paintings, even modernized and re-set in the violent streets of New York City for "West Side Story."

But there's nothing like sitting in the Elizabethan splendor of the Utah Shakespearean Festival's near-perfect replica of the original Old Globe to see the magic and majesty of the Bard's own words brought to life.