Antoni Cimolino’s tenure as artistic director got off to an encouraging start with the opening night production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Tim Carroll.
With the Festival Theatre’s legendary thrust stage given a Back to Future retrofit, the Bard’s presence could immediately be seen and felt.
Re-orchestrating the brass and drum moveable fanfare to the more era-like consort of David Campion, drum; Ian Harper, recorder; Mel Martin, violin and lutist extraordinaire, Terry McKenna paid further homage and provided musical verisimilitude to Shakespeare’s time. Also outside, the traditional pipe band was complemented/contrasted (just off the property) by a pair of uninvited 21st century buskers who gave the limo/taxi parade to the front door a decidedly Charles Ivesian air.
For his part, Carroll (last seen in Stratford and these pages when Peter Pan flew into town—cross-reference below) opted to recreate what might have been experienced in 1595 by leaving the lights on (all the better to kindle a summer matinée effect), employ a largely bare-bones set (by Doulas Paraschuk, who also oversaw the redo of the theatre; the most notable inclusions being Juliet’ s four-post bed and crypt slab) and encouraging the cast to interact directly with the audience. And so we had a Romeo and Juliet like no other to launch the 61st season.
Taken as a whole, this version of the tragicomedy favoured laughs over the theme of “fighting because we always have.” Leading the yuk yuks barrage was Peter (the attendant to Capulet’s nurse—Kate Hennig as broad as required—who brought up Juliet and remains her closest confidante). Mike Nadajewski put all of his considerate comedic talents to work: few others could make the simple acts of opening a parasol or trying to fathom a guest list tears-in-your-eyes funny. Those moments (artfully established by the customary audience cautions—cell phones and throat lozenge—being staged by the troupe rather than heard over speakers) had their intended effect of balancing the senseless rivalries, bullying, murders and suicides that form the bulk of the play’s darker side.
Yet too much humour can spoil the dramatic broth. Camping up the key swordplay sequences seriously lessened the impact of Mercutio’s (Jonathan Goad in top form) demise and Tybalt’s (Tyrone Savage) death most deservèd. After finally consummating their secret marriage, (getting more into his character’s skin through every scene was Stratford newcomer Daniel Brière), Romeo tosses off a sight gag with the balcony-to-courtyard rope (all the stranger when his intended’s mother and father—Scott Wentworth a marvel of diction; Nehassaiu deGannes does well as the conflicted mom, readily take the staircase to the ground below), sadly diffusing the offstage passion. (Sara Topham, like Brière, takes a long time to hit her stride—far better as the lost soul than the virginal child-woman so effortlessly achieved by Olivia Hussey in Zeffirelli’s masterwork—cross-reference below).
The preponderance of light over darkness (curiously, having the audience lit throughout gave the performance more the look and feel of a talk show than high art; the frequent literal intrusions by a number of characters into the viewers’ space suddenly shifted them from quick-witted actors to saucy hosts) had its last unintended guffaw from the lips of Paris (Antoine Yared, resplendent in white) as his final utterance “I am slain”—(I know from the recollections of war veterans that those about to die often state their last understanding of life aloud) drew far too many expressions of merriment than the playwright ever intended.
How appropriate then—before the dual resurrection and final dance of credits, that the frequently heard booming church bell seemed to be tolling its sobering peals for what might have been. JWR