Russ Hunt's Reviews

Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare

Theatre St. Thomas
February 2004

The trick in putting Shakespeare on anywhere except a Shakespeare festival is to find an approach to your script that actually excites the director and company, that makes them feel that they're doing something more than keeping a tradition alive (that's important, of course, but by itself it tends to produce competent, enjoyable and not especially interesting productions). Looking for an angle, of course, can lead to ingenuity for its own sake (Romeo as gang warfare with machine guns; Macbeth in Bosnia) but it can also produce focused, usable energy in the cast and crew and illumination and engagement in the audience.

Ilkay Silk seems to have found such an approach in putting on Romeo and Juliet with Theatre Saint Thomas. It's not often noticed that this script is one of Shakespeare's most challenging. This is both because of its self-consciously poetic language (the speeches are often full of rhyme, and indeed occasionally stiffen into sonnets), and also because its plot is so patently improbable, and so notably not a tragedy -- it's more like a series of unfortunate accidents; a romantic comedy gone horribly wrong -- that it's very easy to slip into a kind of dutiful reference, or even to camp up the coincidences and take it over the top. The trick is to recognize the excess inherent in the characters and the script, and build it into your production, without allowing it to gain control. In order for us to accept the extremes that people go to -- Romeo regularly threatening to kill himself for love, and finally doing so; Juliet drinking the sleeping potion in spite of her fears, and then deciding to kill herself in a matter of moments after awakening -- we need to have become accustomed to extremes. Shakespeare does it by beginning with the young men in the streets, touching off a near-deadly brawl with the exchange of a couple of mild insults, and then piling the pressure on in scene after scene, giving one character after another moments of glorious excess, perhaps culminating in Mercutio's famously unmotivated speech about Queen Mab, as he makes raucous fun of Romeo's premonitory dream.

In the Theatre Saint Thomas production, the basic tone is set by flying young bodies, as the Renaissance sword-fighting is transmogrified into modern-dress Matrix-style martial arts combat, impressively choreographed and coached by Leigh Rivenbark. The production as a whole -- set and changes, lighting, timing of scenes and entrances, blocking, costumes -- is remarkably coherent and powerfully effective. As we have come to expect from productions directed by Silk, the ensemble is well-nigh perfect: there are 29 actors in this show and on Wednesday night I was never aware of one who wasn't right where she should be, and didn't know why she was there. The two folding screens on a slightly elevated platform at the back are shifted unobtrusively into positions that let us know where we are, and the subtle and elaborate lighting changes of old pro Chris Saad, along with the brilliantly effective musical punctuation, played from above the theatre entrance by the composer, Mike Doherty, make scene changes seem magical[note]. More important perhaps, the timing (and the use of the space behind the seating opposite the stage for delayed entrances) lend a powerful momentum to the evening.

Even in productions, like this one, where the real star is the ensemble, there are roles in Romeo and Juliet that are especially challenging, and can be especially rewarding, and Silk seems to have found people for all of them. About almost all of them you can say that their immersion in their roles and their situations sometimes worked against their need to fill the notoriously difficult space of the Black Box with their voices, and that, especially since the production was fearlessly blocked, so that very often important speeches were directed straight into the back wall, it was often really helpful to know the script well. Without attempting to list all the fine, thoughtful, engaged and focused performances, here are a few that created images I'll remember for some time.

Ryan Griffith's Mercutio is brilliantly, charismatically loud, boisterous, and undisciplined, a Miramichi cornerboy pushed to an extreme; his bawdy take on the Queen Mab speech (helped by the great ensemble responding by his Montague mates) leads directly to his thoughtless taking up of the challenge by Tybalt (the chillingly aggressive Chad Bolton) and to what is one of the most powerful takes on the death scene I've witnessed. This scene is, potentially, and certainly in this production, the moment that the play turns from being a romantic comedy to something quite different, and although Mike Doherty's music has been telling us from the beginning that something dark is coming, it's still a surprise when Mercutio falls to the floor in genuine pain, joking through his agony, taking a while to convince everyone -- including the bemused and suddenly doomed Romeo -- that the wound, while not so deep as a well, or so wide as a church door, is going to serve. Griffith is a familiar figure to local theatregoers, both as playwright and actor (last year's Fathers and Sons, for instance), but I have not seen hm generate this level of power before.

The role of Juliet is well known as a challenge for young actresses, calling as it does for an intelligent sympathy for a character who might be taken as a heedless, silly adolescent or a cynical manipulator. Vivien Zelazny (the powerful Thyona in last year's Big Love) makes her Juliet a convincingly innocent, convincingly young, and powerfully sympathetic figure, gaining inexorably in sympathy, and in strength, as her case inexorably worsens. Romeo, similarly, can be dismissed as simply a lovesick airhead; Stephen Taylor makes him powerfully innocent and little boyish, with a reservoir of anger: he seems so astonished by his good luck -- Juliet has noticed him -- that he stands gaping, his hands helplessly at his sides. Both of the principals handle the verse well, making it, with a few lapses where the rhyme becomes more noticeable than it should be, a powerful vehicle for complicated feelings. Both could have projected more clearly into the space around them, but if I have to choose between someone who makes every word clear but doesn't know what they mean and someone whose body supports the meaning so fully you nearly don't need the words, I'll take the latter.

Marissa Robinson, more familiar from her work with Len Falkenstein (Happy City, Free / Fall) makes Lady Capulet a powerful, memorable matron: comfortable in her authority and indomitable in her wielding of a cocktail glass. Darrell Mesheau, another old pro, anchors the production solidly with a coherent, sensitive, convincingly sympathetic Friar Laurence. Terry MacKinnon, another veteran of many campus productions (I particularly remember her Grusha in Caucasian Chalk Circle, and her turn as the Canadian visitor in Romania in Free / Fall), makes the Nurse into a vulnerable and surprisingly sensible (given her uncontrollable loquacity) character. And surprisingly, Silk's production takes the often dropped role of the Chorus -- who introduces the play and Act II, speaking directly to the audience, but whom Shakespeare abandons thereafter -- and make him a focal point of the production. Not only does he (Carl Dalton, in a sensible, charming and ingratiating take on a role I've seen done in straight declamatory style) introduce the two acts, he appears, in the center of our view, arranging things for Juliet -- placing a chair, patting a seat cushion, placing a rose, strewing the marriage bed with petals -- throughout the play, and is given the final classic summing-up speech, which Shakespeare awarded to the Prince. In this production, the Chorus becomes -- and remains -- the mediator between us and the headlong action, our reminder that this is a story, and has a moral.

Many other actors contribute -- even the silent "extras" were there productively and with focus and purpose. Costumes, which I rarely pay much attention to, are perfect: fitting into a social pattern in the show and expressing the characters exactly -- I remember, for instance, Lady Capulet's turquoise party gown, the Nurse's print dress in contrast to the suit she wore as an emissary to the Montagues, the Chorus's neat, unmistakable uniform. Surely, there are nits to be picked: the audiences to the brawls didn't always react as I would when an argument breaks out at the next table; perhaps the Montague boys' treatment of the Nurse was a little restrained; perhaps Tybalt is defeated a little easily by the ineffectual-looking Romeo; perhaps the lighting in the tomb was a shade dark and tended to let us miss nuances -- but overall, the look, feel, momentum and coherence of this production are a kind of lesson in how to make Shakespeare effective and current, and relevant to the audiences that turn up in the Black Box and to the mostly undergraduate cast, without sacrificing what makes him the most remarkable playwright of our language.

Note: I subsequently discovered that Doherty had recorded his music onto a number of CDs and that the actual performances were run by the Black Box's resourceful technical director, John Barlow.

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