by Rod Nichols
The UCCB Dramagroup’s decision to mount a production of Romeo & Juliet, the earliest and most accessible of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, makes a lot of sense. The high school students watching the play all week can luxuriate in the extreme swings of a teenage eroticism that is consummated perfectly with the death of the “star-crossed lovers” in each other’s arms. And in the two public performances (Saturday, November 27 and Sunday, November 28) audiences will be drawn to the most popular love story in the English language, authored by the its most esteemed literary figure.
This heady mix of high-art and pure entertainment suggests why a theatre company takes on Romeo & Juliet one more time, but the director must figure out how to do it afresh. Interpretations on film include the lush romanticism of Zefferelli’s 1960s period piece as well as Baz Luhrmann’s 1990s flashy, gritty contemporary update. And there is no end of theatrical productions “with a difference”, for the play easily accommodates a wide array of topical issues—an all male cast in gender-obsessed North America, or a Sarajevo setting for an audience in the politically torn Balkans, for example.
Some directors struggle to find a novel interpretive twist because they are scared of creating a museum piece that can only be enjoyed by professors of English who love to hear the lines they have studied for so many years being recited correctly. Todd Hiscock, director the UCCB Dramagroup’s production, uses a different strategy to avoid the boredom of (what Peter Brook called) “deadly theatre”. Using a largely uncut script and with the help of gorgeous costumes and a beautiful set designed by Annedelynn Barter, he gives a familiar face to “fair Verona”. Yet this Romeo & Juliet comes alive because Hiscock’s imaginative and precise blocking liberates the bodies of the actors.
Early on, for example, Benvolio (Dillon Chaffey) confronts his friend Romeo (Phonse Walsh), asking why he’s so depressed. Romeo, in love with the idea of love, babbles on with second-rate verse praising Rosaline that simply cannot be played straight. Instead of undercutting Romeo’s experience with ironic nodding and winking, however, the two boys wrestle and roll on the ground. In that context, the lines ring true and natural. Much later, Capulet berates at beats Juliet for refusing to marry Paris after she has secretly married Romeo. Capulet’s typical male rage is channeled by his chillingly crisp movement. It is neither underplayed nor overwrought. The right “message” regarding his physical violence is sent, therefore, without any self-conscious signaling.
Add sword fights and Mary Rochelle Cherpak’s nicely choreographed dancing to these textbook examples of good directing, and the play achieves a real kinetic flow. Set and lighting are an integral part of this flow. With only two small pieces of furniture, the set itself becomes a fully functional extension o the acting space, and Ken Heaton’s lighting gives it a fourth dimension. In one sequence, the stage moves from a quiet torch-lit ballroom that brightens with the festivities, to the moonlight of the balcony scene and then to a garden bathed in the rising sunlight. Needless to say, there are no blackouts.
The key to the acting in this play is teamwork rather than star support. The first half has a broader social sweep and we tend to see the feud between the Capulets and Montagues from the perspective of Romeo’s entourage. Mercutio is the most significant (perhaps even the most attractive) of the characters on both sides, and Rob MacVicar does a fine acting job. He evokes the charm and aggression equally well. Above all, he has a real sense for the conversational nuances of Shakespeare’s poetry. Frazer Andrew’s Tybalt, who draws a rapier with more style than anyone outside a silent movie, is a good match for Mercutio.
In working out the consequences of Mercutio and Tybalt’s fateful deaths, the second half focuses more on the dynamics of Juliet’s immediate family. And the ensemble of Colleen MacIsaac’s Juliet, Michael G. MacDonald’s Capulet, and Laurel MacDonald’s Lady work exceptionally well together. Mike MacDonald has done good work in the Boardmore Playhouse before, but this is his best performance yet because his powerful voice is much more shaped by the emotional pulls and tugs of his partners. Laurel MacDonald has the difficult task of playing in between her domineering husband and the nurse who is so much closer to Juliet. She pulls it off, though, with an intelligent, suggestive interpretation of a woman who has a depth that can easily be missed.
The nurse, of course, is a plum role. Playing her much younger than usual, Sawn White gets the cheap laughs with her blackened teeth but turns in an excellent, well-rounded performance. Huffing and puffing onto the balcony with news about Romeo, for example, she drives Juliet crazy as she guzzles food from a nearby basket more quickly than she gives out information.
Colleen MacIsaac’s china doll beautiful Juliet pairs up well with the irresistibly gawky charm of Phonse Walsh’s Romeo. Walsh is especially good as the moonstruck lover in the first half. At the ball, when Shakespeare turns on the real poetry he plays like an intoxicated fool amidst the dancers. And when he sees Juliet later on the balcony, he has to tear himself off the wall only to move compulsively up and down the ladder. MacIsaac is letter perfect and crystal clear throughout the play, but excels in the second half where she captures the black feeling of deadendedness without going over the top.
Only bardolators would say that Romeo & Juliet has a great ending. Hiscock wisely cuts the Friar’s tedious review, but the remaining walk-ons and explanations take the spotlight off the dead lovers. What’s Goin On’s own Ken Chisholm started the play (as the chorus) so amiably and on just the right note that one wishes for something similar at the end. Still, get tickets before the weekend shows sell out. Fans of Shakespeare will love Romeo & Juliet because it’s Shakespeare, and the cranks will be pleased because it is an energetic, well-directed version of a play that just happens to be written by the greatest dead white male of them all.