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Review: Canadian Stage reassembles Romeo and Juliet into a contemporary and raw production

David Patrick Flemming and Rachel Cairns in Romeo and Juliet.

Dahlia Katz

  • Romeo and Juliet
  • By: William Shakespeare
  • Presented by: Canadian Stage and York University
  • Directed by: Frank Cox-O’Connell
  • Starring: Rachel Cairns and David Patrick Flemming

rating

A young man lays eyes on a young woman at a party and their fate almost instantly changes. Directors have evoked Romeo and Juliet’s consequential love-at-first-sight moment − really a visual cliché − in a variety of clever ways. The scenario at Toronto’s High Park Amphitheatre this summer might now rank among my favourites. A party-weary Juliet (Rachel Cairns) carelessly discards her half-finished pint of beer from the upper-level of her parents’ house. The plastic cup nearly empties itself on Romeo’s (David Patrick Flemming) head. Startled and annoyed, he looks up and identifies the culprit.

In director Frank Cox-O’Connell’s gritty and disarming production, the moment then shifts into atmospheric slow motion. Romeo repositions himself to get a better look at the alluring offender, the dance music decrescendos into moody sustained tones and the teenagers stare at each other from across the stage. They are so caught off guard by their feelings that they appear immobilized and defenceless. There’s little they can do but meet the other’s gaze and grin.

Cairns is so wry and natural in her role that sections of her well-known soliloquies sound as though they could have been written yesterday.

Dahlia Katz

It’s a gorgeous episode that epitomizes how good Cox-O’Connell is at breaking down this 400-year-old story and reassembling it as something contemporary and raw. The production, which opened while the World Cup was in full swing, unfolds around the drama of a soccer tournament. The Montagues and Capulets back opposing teams. With a set that looks like the exterior of a concrete stadium (designed by Ken MacKenzie), the aesthetic is a little back-alley Los Angeles. A long neon dagger (or arrow) adorns one wall; a big graffiti heart − spray-painted early on by Mercutio (Mac Fyfe) − decorates the other. A postmodern touch has the stadium lights and theatre lights exist as one and the same.

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Cox-O’Connell, who is better known as an actor, reveals directorial confidence and vision from the outset. He’s an imagistic thinker: A silhouetted crowd appears at the end of a corridor, cheering an invisible soccer match. The Capulets’s ball is a stylized victory party; the synchronized dancing has a whiff of Latin undertones. And when Romeo and Juliet finally get to spend a night together, we’re treated to an unaffected montage that shows them rapaciously tearing off each other’s clothing while slowly retreating from our view.

This a production of incredible emotional honesty − one that amplifies the play’s themes of love and hatred. Cox-O’Connell makes the violence nasty; there’s blood, vomit and broken bottles used as weapons. When Lord Capulet (played by Gord Bolan in an Adidas tracksuit and chain necklace) lectures his daughter, he threatens her with his belt. The rowdy man-boy antics between the Romeo-Mercutio-Benvolio (Peter Fernandes) trifecta are very funny, but Cox-O’Connell squeezes a lot of emotional detail from this, too. While Fyfe is raucous and charming, he also brings depth to the character via an interesting suggestion of mental distress. Mercutio’s famous Queen Mab speech spins wildly out of control; Romeo puts his arm around his friend and comforts him, “Peace, peace, thou talk’st of nothing,” he says.

As Romeo and Juliet, Flemming and Cairns have chemistry to spare.

Dahlia Katz

Crucially, as Romeo and Juliet, Flemming and Cairns have chemistry to spare. Flemming masters a kind of listless stoner uptalk that suddenly rings with feeling when he meets Juliet. Cairns is so wry and natural in her role that sections of her well-known soliloquies sound as though they could have been written yesterday.

In fact, so many of the characters make their speech burst with contemporary sensibilities that you’ve got to chalk this up to fine direction, too. As the nurse, Jenny Young is chatty, ebullient and full of love for Juliet. Jason Cadieux is compassionate as a hippyish Friar Laurence, obsessed with his magic herbs. Cox-O’Connell finds modern relevance everywhere; when Romeo buys a fatal concoction of drugs from a dealer outside of Mantua, the language pops with significance. “I pay your poverty,” he says.

One of the play’s key directorial decisions is what to do with the double suicide: When does Juliet wake up and is Romeo still alive? Without spoiling it, this penultimate scene is heartrending and swift − a powerful end to a starkly beautiful production.

Romeo and Juliet continues at the High Park Amphitheatre until Sept. 2.

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