Roses are red, violets are blue.

Jungle Theater is opening its 2016 season and they’re inviting you!

On Feb. 12, Jungle Theater is introducing a new season and a new director.

Sarah Rasmussen was named the theater’s artistic director in 2015. But her theatrical experience in Minnesota begins well before that.

Born in South Dakota, Rasmussen first fell in love with theater on a trip to Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater as a girl. It was there that she saw her first play by William Shakespeare, a show she credits for fueling her love of the arts.

After graduating from St. Olaf and working in the Twin Cities, Rasmussen went out to California for graduate school and then onto New York City. Though she worked all over the country, she always had a special place in her heart for the Twin Cities.

After all, it’s the place she says she fell in love.

It’s appropriate then that Rasmussen begins her inaugural season with a love letter in the form of a Shakespearean romantic comedy – “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

Choosing the first show for a season can be a difficult task. I imagine doing so for your first season as the new artistic director is even more challenging! How did you decide on “Two Gentlemen of Verona” for your first show?

Rasmussen: A lot of factors go into choosing shows for the season, but something that has always been really important for the Jungle is exquisite design and really strong acting. I knew that whatever projects they did this season I wanted to carry on those traditions. As a director, I’ve directed a lot of things but Shakespeare was really my first love. I just completely fell in love with the language and the imaginative possibilities in shaping Shakespeare’s stories. That was about 20 years ago, when I first fell in love with Shakespeare, so it feels really full circle now to come back 20 years later as an artistic director [in] the town that really inspired my love of theater. And I thought “Oh, how fitting to start with my first love of Shakespeare.”

I think that is extremely fitting! When the announcement was made that you were to have the position, you discussed your approach to the job would be “Yes, and…” How do you feel this show fits into the “Yes, and…” approach?

Rasmussen: For me, that idea of “Yes, and…” is really about incorporating the legacy of the Jungle, which is the beautiful design [and] the amazing actors. But I think there are always opportunities to keep opening the doors to who hasn’t appeared on stage yet at the Jungle. This cast really feels like “Yes, and…” There are a number of veteran actors that Jungle audiences will know from over the years, but then we have people who are really loved in the Twin Cities that have never done a show at the Jungle. We have 14 actors on stage. The age range between the oldest and youngest is 65 years. It’s a really intergenerational cast. So, that’s one thing to note too, that it’s really a cast that allows the story to appeal to all ages. There’s great perspective to be gleaned from all different ages viewing this show. So, to me, it’s about incorporating both new ideas and vision into that legacy of what’s made that theater so great. Also, this is an all-female cast and Shakespeare would have originally done this play in 1590 with an all-male cast, but we find that an all-female cast kind of allows some of the themes of forgiveness, empathy and compassion to come to the surface in a new way. It also allows the comedy to kind of pop in a fresh way and, let’s be honest, it gives a lot of great actresses amazing roles to play. That to me [also] feels like that “Yes, and…” thing.  It’s like hearing a cover of an old song but played by a new band. It still honors the song – it’s still Shakespeare’s song we didn’t change the lyrics – but depending on whose singing that song you kind of hear it in a new way.

That sounds like a wonderful approach to take at a beloved theater. Tell me, after working in so many different theaters, what sets the Jungle apart from other houses in the Twin Cities?

Rasmussen: There is something really magical about it because it’s only 150 seats, so any seat is great. You’re always going to feel really close to the art. It’s so intimate but then it’s also kind of epic and adventurous at the same time. So, that’s a really awesome combination for a theater; that you can feel so close to it but also like you’re really being transported. It’s magical. It’s really just a cozy space. You really feel like you’re stepping away from the outside world when you’re there and I think that’s a really important part of theater –that you feel like you’re able to leave the world behind for a while and go on an adventure.

I think that is a very important part of what theater offers to audiences, so it’s great that space can help with that. Now, for this show, you’re having seats on stage. Why did you decide to do that?

Rasmussen: Yes, there are 24 seats on stage. So, this is what scholars believe to be Shakespeare’s first play, and the way we’re setting it is in a really Elizabethan-inspired way. So with that kind of Elizabethan feel we went back to thinking about how these plays were originally staged in Shakespeare’s Globe. They were staged [with] the balcony, think of the Romeo & Juliet thing, and there are a couple doors where the characters can come out. But that seating in the original space that Shakespeare was doing his plays in really allowed the audience to wrap around the stage, and I think one of the most amazing things about Shakespeare’s plays is the characters really do talk to the audience. There are moments with soliloquies where they really ask the audience’s advice and they are in conversation with the audience. With our amazing actors, we thought that would just be really fun to be able to put the actors in that proximity to audience. So that being said, there’s not really audience participation but it allows for the actors to feel the audience three-quarters of the way around them. I think it’s going to be a really special thing for audiences to get the actor’s perspective from seeing the stage from the same angle the actor’s do.

What does having the audience within close proximity to the actors add to the performance?

Rasmussen: I think it really fuels the actors to feel the audience’s energy in any play, but certainly in Shakespeare’s play. I think they are kind of written almost as a conversation with the audience. I think actors who are really talented, really brave and really great comedians completely drive on that audience energy. And I can already tell with this cast that it’s only going to bring their performance to light more to feel that energy from the audience.

With having the seats on stage, did you find you had to have a minimal set otherwise to accommodate for space?

Rasmussen: A little bit. The set is pretty extraordinary, but because the costumes are so grand – really elegant and sumptuous and elaborate – the set is pretty simple. The architecture really echoes Shakespeare’s Globe with the balcony, the doors, the kind of simple set. But we’ve done our own modern take on it. Shakespeare’s Globe had two big posts in the middle of it, and for ours we have two actual full size trees from west of Minneapolis. The whole set, this play opens on Valentine’s Day, is all kind of ombre-d in this soft pink. Including these two huge trees. They’re fully climbable, too. So the actors at some point are climbing up to the balcony on trees and doing all sorts of wonderful things in them. The set is really whimsical and magical.

It sounds really magical and lovely! It seems like there are a lot of fun touches in this show, one of which is the dog Bear. Tell me about Bear!

Rasmuseen: He’s doing a really good job. He’s hilarious. He steals the show whenever he is on stage. Bear’s owner in real life plays his owner on stage. So, that’s a pretty sweet thing. They get along well. Bear [also] has this amazing story. He was rescued two times, and he’s this big, sweet part Lab-part Newfoundland. He’s really become part of the family over there. He’s pretty much at rehearsal every day. He’s got a cute costume, too. He’s going to wear one of those Shakespearean ruffs!

That sounds adorable! Dogs always do seem to steal the show when they are on the stage. The other element that is very personal is the music. Talk to me about the composition for the show.

Rasmussen: The music is all original composition. I’m really grateful for these collaborators coming to work with me in Minnesota in the middle of winter. I joke that you really know who you’re true friends are when you say, “Hey, do you want to come do a show with me in Minnesota? Oh, by the way, it’s in January.”  So the music was all originally composed for this by a composer named Andre J. Pluess. His work has been seen in town when the Guthrie did a piece called “White Snake.” He’s really amazing. So, [for this show] he’s playing off that Elizabethan feel. His compositions have those light Italian strings but, because we’re doing the play now, he also includes some really fun beats and contemporary aesthetics to the music. It’s a really fun blend of now and then.

Sounds like it will be a very beautiful show for all the senses. So, you spoke about how this was a town that really fueled your love of theater, but what was it exactly that brought you back to Minnesota?

Rasmussen: I first saw theater here and then I worked here a little bit, early on before I went and got my masters. Then I went and lived out in New York City for a number of years and freelanced around the country. During that time I would come back to Minneapolis every once and a while, and I really loved my experience.  Over the years, I’ve worked in so many different markets in the country – New York City to Oregon to Dallas all over the place – and Minneapolis audiences are really my favorite. I think that they are a really adventurous and they are really smart. I really like the feeling of the artists here and I think the Twin Cities has one of the best artist communities in the nation. I think the actors here are so extraordinary. Also, just the larger support for the arts here is amazing. People will brag that Minneapolis is a theater town, and I love that! So when I got the chance to talk to the Jungle about this job I just really felt like it was the right time to come back to a city that I love and respect so much.

I think it’s wonderful you can come back to the city that helped foster your love of theater, and that Minneapolis was that city! Aside from the idea of “Yes, and…,” what is the conversation or idea you hope to see come out of this show?

Rasmussen: I think for me a real core question at the heart of this show – one of our main characters asks this question – is: “How do I find myself without losing my friends? How do I fall in love for the first time?” This is a universal question — how do we find ourselves on this journey of love without also losing our friends and family on the way? It can be a bumpy ride at times. But any relationship that stands the test of time, it can be a friendship or a family relationship or a romantic relationship, stands the test of time because people stand by you in both the ups and downs. I think forgiveness and empathy are a huge part of that. I think the play looks at that with a lot of heart and humor. And I think, for me, what holds that vision together is us wanting to make something so exquisite and so special and so unique for them that honors their intelligence and their curiosity. Which in turn, hopefully, helps to spark a lot of good post show conversations about serious things or more light hearted [things.] I think theater is unique in its ability to allow us to go more deeply into ourselves and have a personal experience with it but also have a shared experience with others. I think all five of our plays this year have the possibility to really spark that curiosity in the audience.

Two Gentlemen of Verona” opens on Feb. 12. It runs through March 27. Tickets cost $25 to $48. On stage seating is available for $20. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit Jungle Theater online.