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Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare, directed by Scott Wentworth. Through Oct. 21 at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford. Stratfordfestival.ca or 1-800-567-1600.
The familiarity of Romeo and Juliet is a double-edged sword. It’s an audience and school-curriculum favourite, and thus always likely to do well at the box office. But this leads to expectations that it will deliver a certain kind of sweet, tragic — predictable — romance.
Scott Wentworth’s new production attempts, riskily and bravely, to counter these preconceptions. Christina Poddubiuk’s dark-wood design blends into the existing Festival Theatre architecture, creating a solid, imposing physical world.
At the production’s heart is the freshness and credibility of the relationship between Sara Farb and Antoine Yared as the title characters. They play them as youthful, impulsive, and vivacious, but far from a perfect hero and heroine. There are tantrums, shrieks, and teenage mood swings aplenty, many of which play as welcome moments of comedy. The usually central scenes of their meeting, marriage, and morning-after-consummation are handled swiftly, as pivot points in the driving forward action.
Stripping away those potential moments of romantic idyll has the bracing result of exposing the insidious, patriarchal nature of this young couple’s Verona. While there is intelligence and wit in many of their line readings, Mercutio (Evan Buliung) and his band of male followers have a violent edge.
Buliung is amped up like he’s on some Renaissance version of cocaine, his hands shaking violently as he pulls on his leather gloves to duel with Tybalt (Zlatomir Moldovanski); and a scene of street banter with Seana McKenna’s Nurse turns ugly when he grabs her and rubs his face in her cleavage.
This potential for masculine violence plays out most disturbingly in the scene where Capulet (Randy Hughson) turns on Farb’s Juliet when she balks at marrying Paris (Gordon Patrick White): Farb’s scream as she’s thrown to the floor is genuinely upsetting.
While the production is costumed traditionally (and Poddubiuk’s lavish, brocade frocks and breeches are beautiful), the repressive society it depicts resonates with today. Less clear is the frame that Wentworth offers through the female Chorus (Sarah Dodd) and four wordless female characters identified in the program as Widows.
The Chorus, as Margaret Jane Kidnie points out in an excellent program note, spoils the action from the start by telling us that this is a story in which “a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life” — and she’s portrayed here as having control over the action, perhaps from the great beyond. The Widows carry beautiful, mysterious orbs that may have otherworldly powers, and in the vault scene bring some of the production’s bloodstained body count back onstage.
Other cryptic metaphysical effects include the occasional use of recorded voice-over, including a truly bizarre moment where the Apothecary (John Kirkpatrick) appears in a white crow half-mask. How this might connect to Wentworth’s attempted focus, revealed in his own program note, on contemporary hate speech and teen suicide, did not come through to me.
Amongst a solid ensemble, the star turn here is Farb’s — she has that rare capacity to speak Shakespeare’s words as if they are occurring to her for the first time, as epitomized in her spellbinding delivery of Juliet’s speech just before she drinks the poison. McKeana’s Nurse is also pure joy, working her way effortlessly through lines laden with complex entendre, nipping on a flask, and wheedling coin after coin from Yared’s Romeo.
As this “two hours’ traffic” of the stage edges closer to three hours, Wentworth speeds up the action, at times effectively — entrances and exits happen so efficiently the feeling is that of cinematic montage — but towards the end some exchanges are so quick it’s hard to understand what the characters are saying.
Wentworth’s production is full of interesting ideas, at times overflowing with them to the point of incomprehension. It is in any event a rare treat to see a Romeo and Juliet fall in love with the fresh credibility that Farb and Yared do here.