WELLESLEY — Has any play permeated popular culture as thoroughly as “Romeo and Juliet”?
To even use one of the title characters’ names in another context is to invoke a sense of potent but doomed passion. The play is teeming with well-worn quotes, such that there may as well be a law compelling journalists to refer to Romeo and Juliet as “star-crossed lovers” at least once per article.
There are screen adaptations, including films directed by Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann, and ones conspicuously inspired by the original, from “West Side Story” to Disney’s “Gnomeo and Juliet.” During the recent celebration of the centennial of John F. Kennedy’s birth, you may have come across clips of his brother Bobby’s remembrance at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, when he poignantly quoted the play.
But “Romeo and Juliet” is one of those greatest hits that is popular for a reason. That’s what the folks at Commonwealth Shakespeare Company have in mind with the production that begins performances on Boston Common Wednesday. As always for this annual tradition, admission is free.
“You take into consideration that everyone knows at least the ins and the outs of the story,” says director Allegra Libonati. “I think our approach is that the play holds up. The characters are really good. The relationships are really deep. It’s about best friends, it’s about unconditional love for another human being, it’s about parents and children.”
Libonati is resident director at American Repertory Theater. Fluent in the languages of drama, opera, and commedia dell’arte, she directed a bold, bright, well-received production of “The Rake’s Progress” for Boston Lyric Opera earlier this year. Set designer Julia Noulin-Mérat and costume designer Neil Fortin, veterans of that production, are back on board for this one.
This “Romeo and Juliet” is set in the time period specified by its script (14th-century Italy), and the costumes are traditional Shakespearean fare. The set evokes a sense of nature reclaiming the ruins of a monk’s abbey where perhaps there was a civil war years before, Libonati says. At moments in the show, large puppets will parade through the audience, and the Capulets’ big party, at which Romeo and Juliet meet, will spill onto the Common as well. The cumulative effect should be “not strict Elizabethan, but more populist,” the director explains.
“Nowadays it’s unusual to just set the play in its own time and see what happens,” she says. “It’s just very exciting to look at the play and say: How can it speak to today, from when it was written?”
The play’s central duo is played by John Zdrojeski and Gracyn Mix, who are also newcomers to Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and relative newcomers to Boston stages. (Zdrojeski attended Boston University and has performed at the school’s Boston Center for American Performance and at New Repertory Theatre; Mix was in a reading at Huntington Theatre Company last year.) It’s also their first time playing these roles.
On a recent afternoon they worked on the play’s final act at the company’s rehearsal space at Babson College. Scenes in the crypt where Juliet lies and at Romeo’s hiding place outside of Verona are set in almost overlapping proximity, to underline the sense of tragically missed connections, according to Libonati.
Zdrojeski sits cross-legged at the stage lip, while Mix lies motionless a few feet away. Their director works out some of the “traffic” issues involved with the multiple locations and a large number of actors onstage. At the play’s close, she fixes on a logistical detail.
“We have to get rid of those candles or when there’s a blackout [at the end of the show] no one will clap,” she says in an energetic, upbeat tone that seems to be part of her regular cadence. “Maybe we can figure out some sort of ritual” to carry those candles offstage, she muses out loud before setting the issue aside to solve later.
Earlier, Mix talks about the challenge and opportunity of playing Juliet for the first time — and doing it in front of the thousands who are expected to attend this production on Boston Common.
“I showed up for the first rehearsal and I was terrified,” Mix says. “There’s a pressure to do her justice. And then once you start playing with it, it’s so fun — who needs to be afraid anymore?”
Zdrojeski says much the same, in a phone interview. The moment he got the role, his first impulse was to feel intimidated by all the great actors and great performances that preceded him. “The more and more you work on it, the more you realize that those kinds of parts, those iconic parts, are like rental cars. No one owns them. Everyone has taken them on their own journey and everyone’s journey with it is different,” he says.
As is often the case with Shakespeare — the guy was pretty good at the writing-plays thing — this material becomes more rich, not less, the more familiar you are with it. Zdrojeski showed up to the first rehearsal with a binder full of notes on the play and has been thinking about it all day, every day, for two months, he says. But just this past week he came to some new insights about Romeo’s character development that hadn’t occurred to him before.
Even if its best-known poetry has been quoted to the point of cliché, there’s something new to find there. It’s not merely the play’s reputation, but its content that delivers. After all: What’s in a name? This rose seems sure to keep smelling pretty sweet.
ROMEO AND JULIET
Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, July 19-Aug. 6. On Boston Common, near Parkman Bandstand. Tickets are free; chairs are available for a $60-$75 donation. 617-426-0863, www.commshakes.orgJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.