Mill Town Players’ unique Southern spin on Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” will compete at the American Association of Community Theatre National Festival in Pennsylvania on June 21.

Executive artistic director Will Ragland says this will be the first time a team from South Carolina has competed at nationals since 1985. With Mill Town Players being only five years old, Ragland says that to compete at nationals is rare.

After winning at both the state Community Theatre Festival and the Southeastern Theatre Conference, the theater company is giving local audiences one last chance to see the show on June 19.

Set in a time inspired by the Hatfield-McCoy feud, this version of “Romeo and Juliet” delivers Southern twang, bluegrass, moonshiners, and ax fights — while not sacrificing the Shakespearean language and epic love story.

Greg Middleton brought his personal emotion and past feelings to the character. Photo by Samantha Taylor.

“It’s something [audiences] know in a way they’ve never seen it before,” Ragland says.

When developing this concept for the play, he wanted to make Shakespeare interesting and accessible for everyone.

“People don’t realize that those plays were not meant to be read in English classes; they were meant to be performed and seen and experienced by all classes of society,” he says.

Ragland says applying a thick Southern Appalachian dialect to the original Old English text definitely makes “Romeo and Juliet” more accessible to those who have an ear for Southern accents.  

“We didn’t change the words, we just changed how we said them,” Ragland says.

Mill Town Players’ “Romeo and Juliet” lasts only an hour due to competition guidelines, so some unnecessary text was cut.

Playing Romeo, Greg Middleton says he has big shoes to fill.

“There’s a lot of emotional roller-coastering that my character goes through — from being elated that I’m getting to marry Juliet to, spoiler alert, finding out she’s ‘dead’ and then doing the same upon myself,” Middleton says. “There’s a lot of emotional wavelength going on with my character.”

Kat Bates feels Juliet is a sweet, passionate character. Photo by Samantha Taylor.

Middleton says the polarization of the two families pitted against one another brings an important message. The Capulets and the Montagues share a tension that spirals out of control, leading to unreasonable hatred and deaths, but later make peace.

“The idea of — we can’t let these stupid rivalries take over our lives and cause pain upon others, love each other, take care of each other, have respect for each other — I think that’s the greatest theme of the play,” he says.

Kat Bates plays the passionate, young Juliet. “She’s falling in love for the first time, and she thinks that’s her whole world,” Bates says. “I think she’s a very innocent character.”

Juliet remains the same layered, complex girl she’s always been. “She’s experiencing a lot of new in a short amount of time, and that’s why she makes such rash decisions like faking her death,” Bates says.

‘Romeo and Juliet’

When: 7:30 p.m. June 19
Where: Historic Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby St., Pelzer
Tickets: $15 (Additional donations to cover competition costs will be accepted at the door.)
Info: www.milltownplayers.org

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