(photo by Jim Barcus)

Critics and colleagues are impressed by the UMKC Conservatory-trained actress, who played Juliet in this year’s Heart of America Shakespeare Festival production of “Romeo and Juliet”

“O she doth teach the torches to burn bright,” says Romeo of his love.

The same can also be said of this year’s Juliet at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. Jessica Andrews slipped comfortably (and appropriately youthfully) into the maiden’s lacy bodices at the festival’s first production since 2019, due to the onset of the pandemic.

Andrews described the part as her absolute “dream.” Passionate about Shakespeare, she is particularly in awe of Juliet for her ability to express herself knowingly, elegantly and maturely — at the tender age of 13.

The last time HASF did “Romeo and Juliet” was 2007. Taking advantage of the current popularity of the Emmy-nominated drama “Bridgerton,” this year the Kansas City stage glowed in striking pastels as a backdrop for lavish costumes. Romeo, played by Evan Cleaver, and Juliet, played by Andrews, were a most watchable couple. On one of its many nights, more than 2,000 people attended the production in Southmoreland Park, an “amazing experience” Andrews says she’ll never forget.

HASF Executive Artistic Director Sidonie Garrett, who directed Andrews in a virtual production of “Twelfth Night” just months before, describes the actress as “a joy to have in rehearsal and on stage,” and admires her ability “to create characters with a great deal of verisimilitude.” Andrews, while delighted with “Twelfth Night,” says never doing another Zoom enactment would be soon enough — it’s an “actor’s nightmare.” She’s had considerable Shakespeare experience, having acted a season at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, and beyond Shakespeare, she’s no stranger to period pieces.

One of her most fulfilling endeavors, she says, was headlining UMKC Theatre’s “The Italian Straw Hat,” a 19th-century French farce. Putting a woman in the leading role of the dapper groom hadn’t been considered, but Andrews sold herself. It was a demanding role: She had to master comedy, intense physical theatrics, and an almost unceasing text, while completely carrying the show on her shoulders — all the while in a very restrictive, tight-fitting Victorian suit.

Andrews cites UMKC Theatre’s “The Moors,” also in a 19th-century setting, as another great memory, and its playwright, Jen Silverman, as one of her favorites.

Another favorite writer is Clare Barron, who wrote the bold “Dance Nation,” on the Unicorn’s schedule last fall, in which Andrews starred. Critic Liz Cook admired her “strong read on the way women are socialized to deny their ambitions and shrink from the spotlight.” Unicorn Theatre goers may also have seen Andrews in “Tiny Beautiful Things” last spring, when critic Victor Wishna hailed the “moments of charm, humor and intensity” she exhibited. Andrews was a standout storyteller in KCRep’s “Ghost Light” last October, and in its reading of “Village of Vale” in 2019. She was part of “Brainstorm” at the Coterie in 2021.

Andrews grew up in Bellingham, Washington, one of three daughters of an arborist father and a hair stylist mother. It was when she saw her older sister, now an L.A. make-up artist, in an elementary school play, that she knew the stage was her future — this despite being the shyest of her siblings. She studied theater at Western Washington University under Rich Brown, where the “devised” method, a collaborative approach in which each performer is enlisted as actor, playwright, musician, choreographer, sound, set and costume designer — even carpenter at times — was dominant.

“(Andrews) brings fearlessness and vulnerability, confidence and humility, grit and grace, all with tremendous joy and a deep curiosity about what it is to be human.”

Carla Noack, associate professor of theater in acting at UMKC Conservatory

After graduation Andrews and her fellow actors, all “slashes,” i.e., do-it-all creators, formed the WanderLost Theatre and entertained in parks, garages, basements and on roofs. Her other ensemble, HERON, was offered a residency by well-known Seattle directors and artists at Smoke Farm, a nature camp in the woods, and went on to develop several new plays. In both projects she found “the spirit of why I love theater so much — leaping and seeing what happens.”

At WWU, Andrews made several contacts with UMKC connections, including Beth Leonard, the school’s chair of theater and dance who earned her M.F.A. from UMKC. Another friend, who was pursuing sound design at UMKC, put her in contact with UMKC professor Stephanie Roberts, a Seattle native who auditioned Andrews while home on a visit. It was Roberts’s renowned mastery of commedia dell’arte and a subsequent interview with Ted Swetz, then head of theatre arts at the Conservatory, that clinched Andrews’ decision to make the move to Kansas City.

Performing at UMKC Theatre, where Carla Noack, associate professor of theater in acting at UMKC Conservatory, called her “a light” and “a creative dynamo,” put Andrews on the path to roles at the Unicorn, KCRep, the Coterie and HASF. She has several projects in development for fall and winter that may enable her to showcase her talents as a singer, musician and athlete, and her command of accents. She’s also working on a one-person show “Know Me Again,” which she hopes to workshop.

“She brings fearlessness and vulnerability, confidence and humility, grit and grace,” Noack said, “all with tremendous joy and a deep curiosity about what it is to be human.”

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

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