Shakespeare in Action

When I mentioned to my York University companions at “Matchbox Macbeth” that I was going to be seeing Romeo and Juliet the next night, they buzzed: “Isn’t Caleb in that?” I couldn’t help, since the material I saw didn’t have a cast list and I would barely have focused on one anyway. But I can now say that Kaleb Alexander, the recent York U graduate they were talking about, was indeed Romeo in a production by Shakespeare in Action, billed as “Canada’s leading Shakespeare Company for Young Audiences.”

A work colleague who couldn’t make the show offered me her RSVP with a warning that she “wasn’t sure it was my cup of tea.” I wasn’t at all sure what she meant, but it did raise forebodings of a dumbed-down production for teenagers, or even children, perhaps a high school production with Shakespeare’s language simplified and the dirty jokes cut. The fact that it was being staged in a school and that the webpage advised “Suitable for young Grades 6–12” only added to my apprehensions. My memories of my high school’s production of West Side Story aren’t pretty.

The preliminaries were no more encouraging. Toronto has been gray and depressing this fall and last Saturday its skies opened up. I didn’t really know the neighborhood, so I decided to walk from the Ossington Street subway station. Mistake: my portable umbrella was little match for the steady rain, and I arrived wet and unhappy. And I don’t know about you, but a school lobby triggers such bad memories for me that I can scarcely stand to be in one, even dry and comfortable.

Once I got into the theater, though, things started looking up. A smiling attendant motioned me toward a front row seat on the aisle. There was very little scenery—doors stage left, a balcony and sculpted trellis stage right—perhaps indicating poverty, but fitting well with my view that where Shakespeare staging is concerned, less is more. As I dried out, I started to get into the spirit.

And then, the prologue. The opening sonnet was competently delivered—most importantly, by a professional actor. This was to be a production in a school, not a school production! Alas, the opening of the play proper knocked me out of the spirit again. As I’ll explain at length in My Year with Shakespeare, I am very particular about the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. As far as I know, nobody had ever opened a play with a sonnet (and a total spoiler) before; that, and the fifty lines of innuendo from the Capulet goons Sampson and Gregory that launch the action proper, sweep the audience up in a gust of wordplay that sets the tone and themes for the entire action. You know that Romeo and Juliet are made for each other because when they meet they combine to make the play’s second sonnet. The Prologue was fair enough, but then Sampson and Gregory charged onstage from the audience dragging a Montague with them. Some of the wordplay gets spoken while they are beating him up, but it obviously isn’t the focus. The scene degenerates into a choreographed melee, in which it isn’t clear who is Capulet and who Montague. That could be a legitimate dramatic choice if it’s carried out thematically (what’s in a name, after all?), but it wasn’t here; it was just confusing, the more so since the same actor doubled as Sampson and Tybalt, two characters who are on stage at the same time here. Instead, the opening also fell prey to one of the two hazards in staging Romeo and Juliet these days; imitating West Side Story. A highly choreographed Capulet-Montague fight like this one, in which the foot soldiers do turns and hit the floor in unison, has its place in a musical, but what the play needs is a sense of the overwhelming tension in Verona, the feeling that a boil might just get lanced right here at the beginning. Baz Lurhmann cut the innuendo in Romeo + Juliet too, but at least he conveyed that long, hot summer feeling.

And that’s the other hazard of any production of Romeo and Juliet; imitating that Leo movie. The problem is that, say what you like about Romeo + Juliet, it’s the work of an artist with a single vision, so borrowings are going to look out of content. This production pretty well avoided the danger; the only allusion I detected was a slight gay vibe coming off Ryan Field’s Mercutio. That’s a standard interpretation (sigh), and this was nowhere near as blatant as Harold Perrineau’s drag Mercutio in the film.

The cast was generally solid. Casting black actors as the Montagues and white actors as the Capulets was a tad obvious, but it worked well, quite unlike the Comedy of Errors I saw some years ago in which the Ephesian twins were black and the Syracusan twins were white. Kaleb was a little stolid as Romeo but that is consistent with the character, who really is only tolerable during his poetic flights. It’s hard to imagine what else Juliet sees in him. Bahareh Yaraghi effectively conveyed Juliet’s little-girl side (it can never be repeated often enough, as Shakespeare makes a point of repeating, that Juliet is thirteen), but was not as successful at capturing the woman whose puppy love Shakespeare miraculously transforms into all-consuming passion. Juliet may be a child, but she never sounds fatuous; she is an ocean waiting to be plumbed.

Peter Smith played Friar Laurence with a mumbly inefficiency I came to realize is perfectly appropriate for the character, whose incompetence makes him by far the most dangerous character in the play. (When he concocts his scheme to have Juliet play dead, ask yourself this: why doesn’t he just send her directly to Romeo in Mantua? That’s where she’s supposed to end up, and he is sending a messenger there, so why can’t she go with him? Of course, the answer is that this would ensure a happy ending.) In the same vein, Nicole Robert’s Nurse was sometimes irritating, but that reminded us that though we may love her for her dirty mouth, the Nurse is Juliet’s version of Friar Laurence, a bad advisor and false friend. Clyde Whitham, apparently the most experienced Shakespearean in the cast, deserves a mention for his Old Capulet,; I found it much the most effective performance, greatly magnifying the role of this relatively minor character.

Several of the players are associated with the Humber River Shakespeare Company. I enjoyed their Twelfth Night summer before last but did not see any publicity from them this year; I hope they perform next summer. These are hard times for little theater companies, just like for everybody. As for Shakespeare in Action, now that I know where the school is I’ll certainly see their Midsummer Night’s Dream if I can get another pass.

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