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Romeo and Juliet
"Romeo and Juliet" returns to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival this summer for the first time since the 2002 fest, pictured above. (Pantagraph file photo)

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival is not only a favorite summer pastime, but also a world class theater company.

For the past 34 years, the festival has produced Shakespeare and classical theater with casts and crews from around the nation. This month, more than 95 artisans have arrived in Bloomington-Normal to begin the on-site work for the summer season.

This year's season runs from June 23 through Aug. 7 at the Ewing Cultural Center in Bloomington. Shows include "Romeo & Juliet," "The Winter's Tale," "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)," and "Twelfth Night."

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival has been ranked one of the top three family-friendly Shakespeare Festivals in the country by National Geographic's The Best of Everything.

Patrons spend their summers enjoying the Genevieve Green Gardens and the Elizabethan-style Theatre at the Ewing Cultural Center. Visitors can begin by picnicking on the lawn with delicious food from Kelly's Bakery & Cafe, or by listening to live jazz in the bistro-style courtyard.

For those who want to get the inside story of the theater, tours are available each night and reveal secrets about scenery, lighting, costumes and stagecraft. The festival offers special entertainment on Tuesday nights: Bring your favorite date to participate in a scavenger hunt or wine tasting.

The festival also offers several special event nights.

The Bloomington-Normal Rotary clubs will host a night of service for 130 community youth on June 20. Join fellow theater-lovers for hors d'oeuvres and wine from Biaggi's at the Illinois Shakespeare Society Garden Reception on June 24. Illinois State University alumni can visit with President Al Bowman at Alumni Night on June 29, before taking in "Romeo & Juliet." Finally, Friends of WGLT will enjoy food from the Garlic Press on Aug. 7 at the annual WGLT Night at the Festival.

Free shows are offered Wednesday and Saturday mornings as part of the Theatre for Young Audiences program. These abbreviated shows are held on the Ewing grounds and are perfect for children and families. Reservations are required. This year's production is "Twelfth Night."

Opening nights are: June 23 -- "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged);" June 24 -- "Romeo & Juliet;" and July 14 --"The Winter's Tale." Tickets are available through Ticketmaster, or by calling the festival box office at 309-438-2535. Also, visit www.theFestival.org for more information.

Folse is managing director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

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