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Bolingbrook's Lorrisa Julianus wrote, produced and plays the title character in Theatre-on-the-Hill's "Zenobia." Outdoor performances heat up evenings this weekend through the Labor Day holiday. (Photo provided)

To say that Lorrisa Julianus lives in the past would be an understatement, at least this summer. The Bolingbrook resident co-wrote, produced and stars in a musical about the life of Zenobia, third century warrior queen of the Palmyrene Empire in ancient Syria.

The multimedia musical spectacular premiered at Bolingbrook’s Theatre-on-the-Hill on Aug. 15 and will play outdoors Friday through Labor Day Monday.

At age 14, Julianus was inspired to reintroduce Zenobia to the modern world when she read a book about inspirational women in history.

“It’s an amazing rabbit hole of history that most Americans have never heard of, and thus don’t know what’s coming next,” she said of the intriguing story lines.

According to many versions of her history, a teenage Zenobia married a much older king, became queen after his assassination, and ruled until she was defeated by the Roman emperor. She also claimed to be a descendent of Cleopatra, and proved as capable a ruler, but boasted some qualities of character the ancient Egyptian queen lacked.

“Some sources say that she had the brains and beauty of Cleopatra … but, unlike Cleopatra, was known for her chastity and prowess on the battlefield,” Julianus said.

Julianus also was struck by the fact that Zenobia’s story ended differently than other ancient queens, many of whom met tragic ends. Although history is divided on what happened to Zenobia after her defeat, it's believed she went on to live a long, happy life and had descendants living for another two centuries.

Years ago, Julianus, who is a published playwright and now works as a professional actor in videogames and television, wrote a treatment for a musical film about Zenobia’s life. However, she eventually shelved it, like other writing projects she’d worked on throughout the years. But in 2009, facing stress and chaos in her life and in the lives of friends, she decided it was time to move forward.

“Life is too short not to follow your dreams,” she said. “Creating an epic musical from scratch seemed so ambitious as to be impossible without a few million dollars, but I had no choice but to see it through to completion. Zenobia empowered me in a time when I felt at the whim of the powers that be – employers, the housing market, big business, lobbyists. When I recognized this same powerless feeling and frustration in the lives of everyone struggling after the financial collapse of 2008, I found my voice again as a writer.”

In 2010, she met musician and composer Angela Salvaggione of Joliet, who liked the story idea. The pair began working on the show, with Julianus writing the book and lyrics, and Salvaggione composing the music.

Although "Zenobia" is written for the stage, it has the fast-paced feel of a film and, indeed, there is a film component to the show. A graduate from Columbia College’s film school, Julianus could not resist incorporating the medium in her stage show.

“I believe that film is the medium of this generation, this century,” she said. “So many people don’t take an interest in theater because, I think, they’ve been brought up on the immediacy of film and its visual style of storytelling. With the advanced technical capabilities of Bolingbrook Town Center stage, we’re able to merge the mediums in an action-packed story that kept our opening night audience on the edge of their seats.”

With palatial scenes shot at Cantigny in Wheaton, desert scenes at local quarries, and background shots from southern Florida, the footage, along with period costumes by Julie Kinsey of Oswego, rounds out the story to give the audience a stunning visual experience, say organizers.

But those who think they’re in for a history lesson are mistaken. Julianus has taken a modern twist to Zenobia’s life, including a love story and a struggle between the classes, with ghosts, mythological characters, a near-death experience, and onstage battles to appeal to the action lovers in the audience.

Director and Theatre-on-the-Hill President Craig Engel adds, “It’s musical theater, not a documentary, it’s a fantastic date night.

She has taken some creative liberties with the ruler’s life. Julianus’ take on the story has Zenobia abandoned as a baby, quickly ending up in slavery, then falling in love with her vigilante master. She catches the eye of the king and is catapulted to royalty, becoming a powerful ruler who shakes up the status quo despite treachery and the ever-looming threat of a villainous Roman emperor.

Within the epic-size cast of 40, the show also stars many other Bolingbrook residents, including Scott and Bonnie Bovaird, along with their two sons, Spencer and Campbell, Victor Rachal, Sharon Hand, David Lichty, Bill Smith, Ruth Bardy, Kayaun Pierce, Julie and Dominick Guida, Jonathan O'Brien, Troy Shaeflein, Kristina Parro and Matthew Bockus.

"I am thrilled that my family is a part of 'Zenobia,'" Bonnie Bovaird said. "The story, script and music are truly outstanding, as are the people involved in the production. We all look forward to sharing 'Zenobia' with the community."
The play begins at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 30 and 31, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Monday, Sept. 1 and 2. Tickets cost $15. The outdoor stage is at 375 W. Briarcliff Road, behind Village Hall.

The show may not be suitable for young children; Julianus rates it at PG-13 for dialogue and intense action.

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