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Published January 30 2010

Back with the Bard: Moorhead native returns with ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Moorhead native Hugh Kennedy spent a lot of time dreaming about acting.

“For years and years I would lay in my bed, be up late and be trying to go to sleep, and just more than anything in the world, I just really wanted to be an actor – or be the kind of actor that my favorite actors were,” he says.

He knew the prospects for making a living wage as an actor in Moorhead were pretty slim. But, for one night next week, the 23-year-old will earn his bread as a professional thespian in his old hometown.

Kennedy, who now lives in Minneapolis, plays Benvolio in “Romeo and Juliet” at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Hansen Theatre. The show is a co-production of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and The Acting Company in New York. The performance kicks off a 25-city tour that includes stops in 18 states.

“Romeo and Juliet” is Shakespeare’s classic story of two young people from rival families who fall in love and the tragic, yet redemptive, outworking of their relationship. While the play is still set in Verona and the language is standard Shakespeare, the production coming to MSUM places the story in the early 20th century instead of during the Elizabethan era.

“It’s a very romantic period dress-wise and men still carried swords, but they usually were in walking sticks, but those things are important to ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ” says Margot Harley, producing artistic director for The Acting Company. “And the idea was to make it possibly more accessible to now because the clothes are more like – though not exactly like – but at least the men are much more like what we wear today.”

Monday’s performance doesn’t just bring Kennedy back to his hometown. It also takes him back to the space where he took an eighth-grade field trip to see a production that he says opened his eyes to theater. It just happened to be Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And it just happened to be a traveling Guthrie Theater production.

He says he and his friends “weren’t over-the-top excited about it, I don’t think. But that show for me and all my friends kind of flipped our whole lives upside down.”

He says they “were dying” with laughter.

“We were like falling out of our seats,” he says. “I mean, it was this classical play written hundreds and hundreds of years ago, but it had this incredible immediacy just because of the talented actors that were breathing life into the play.”

Since then, Kennedy’s come quite a long way. The Trollwood Performing Arts School and Moorhead High School alum earned his bachelor of fine arts in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater actor training program in 2008. He was a 2004 Presidential Scholar and performed at the Kennedy Center. He’s also acted in a number of productions at the Guthrie.

Along the way, he “kind of fell in love with” Shakespeare and the classics.

Shakespeare is “heavy lifting, I think, for actors,” Kennedy says. And Kennedy’s drawn to the challenge the work presents.

Rebecca Meyer-Larson, director of theater at Moorhead High, worked with Kennedy for years and says he “has an incredible work ethic.”

“I think he thinks about his characters and he crawls into their skin constantly,” she says.

She remembers that Kennedy spent time at a home for the elderly when he was to play the part of an older man in the school’s production of “Working.”

“I dare anybody to find somebody who could have played that role better than Hugh,” Meyer-Larson says. “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place.”

It’s those sorts of memories to which Kennedy will return Monday. And he’s looking forward to drinking in a few homecoming moments.

“I’m really just kind of living for that moment that when I lie down at the end of the day, I’ll be able to be like, ‘Hey, I came back to my hometown. I got to play Shakespeare for some of my closest friends and most cherished mentors,’ ” Kennedy says. “It’ll be a cool way to kick off the tour. That’s for sure.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734