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Romeo and Juliet: holey palmers

by | Aug 12, 2022 | Review | 0 comments

promo photo Romeo and Juliet

Ghazal Azarbad and Andrew McNee in Romeo and Juliet (Photo: Tim Matheson)

As an ex of mine said just before he stopped talking to me forever, “This is not how I hoped things would work out.” I have huge respect for the body of director Anita Rochon’s work and for the skills of many of the other creatives on this team but, in my experience, this production of Romeo and Juliet doesn’t hold together.

That said, there are significant successes in the unwieldy mix, so let’s start with those. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s a synopsis.)

Playing Juliet’s mom, Lady Capulet, Jennifer Lines brings her trademark warmth and emotional depth. As soon as this Lady Capulet steps onstage, you recognize her humanity, and soon you understand her complexity. The character starts off wary of forcing Juliet to marry too young, as she herself was married. But, when Juliet becomes defiant in her love for Romeo, whose family is feuding with the Capulets, Lady Capulet feels compelled to enforce the system that damaged her: in the most emotionally wrenching — and successful — scene in this production, Lady Capulet rages at Juliet, telling her that, if she doesn’t consent to marrying Paris, the suitor her family prefers, Juliet is no longer welcome in her home and can die in the street. In Lines’s characterization, there’s a horrible inevitability to all of this.

In the original script, this rage belongs to Juliet’s father, a character director Rochon has cut to good effect.

The other compelling portrait is Anita Wittenberg’s Friar Laurence. (In a number of instances, Rochon has cast across gender lines.) Watching Wittenberg’s work, I kept thinking it must be informed by her experience as a parent: her characterization is so no-nonsense, and so deeply caring.

And there’s one particularly significant success in the physical production: composer Joelysa Pankanea’s music. When Juliet fakes her death just before she’s supposed to get married to Paris, Lady Capulet says they must now turn their wedding instruments to the “melancholy bells” of a funeral: Pankanea has created a gorgeous score centred on handbells, which produce a sustained ringing tone. The actors sound them in myriad ways. This production’s most stunning moment of staging comes just before the intermission: Juliet is flying off to Friar Laurence’s cell to marry Romeo and the whole cast streams onto the stage and out through the audience ringing their bells. It’s ecstatic.

But there are holes in Rochon’s vision too. Big ones.

She has miscast both Romeo and Juliet.

If there were a Ghazal Azarbad fan club, I’d be a member, but the actor’s rich, adult groundedness feels at odds with Juliet’s lines — and Azarbad’s occasional indications of the character’s adolescent petulance feel forced. To be clear, Azarbad’s performance is always responsive — she nails Juliet’s horror at the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt for instance — but I never saw the girl I think she wants us to see.

Daniel Fong simply seems too inexperienced to deliver a compelling Romeo.

Importantly, I never bought the love between these two characters for a minute, so I could never take their story seriously.

Partly, that has to do with Rochon’s framing of the relationship. Even in the full text, Romeo and Juliet fall in love awfully quicky. But Rochon has cut the text to the bone, which gives the audience less time to adjust to the idea of the already sudden love, so Romeo and Juliet end up looking like a couple of foolish kids. That could be a legit take, of course, but, if we don’t feel the depth of that affection, no matter how foolish it might be, why are we watching? Where’s the tension?

Talking about this leads to Rochon’s most significant directorial gesture: she opens the play with Juliet regaining consciousness in the family tomb, so the rest of the play becomes a kind of flashback that leads us back to that moment. What’s gained from this? Not much.

The convention did not make me more alert to Juliet’s agency in her own demise. It did make me even more aware of the inevitability of the tragedy — and of the script’s many references to death — but, combined with my disinterest in the central characters, this emphasis on inevitability made me less rather than more invested in the story. Rochon’s telling does highlight the parental and mentoring figures of Lady Capulet and Friar Laurence, but it seems to me that has more to do with the cuts and reassignment of lines than with the framing device.

Two more of the central characterizations also disappoint.

For me, Andrew McNee, who’s playing the Nurse, delivers more of a performance than a characterization, if you know what I mean: he does a lot of tricky comic bits and displays moments of compelling emotion. There is also a sly undertone, a level on which the Nurse and Juliet understand one another’s playfulness. Pulling all of this off takes skill and intelligence, but, beyond this assemblage of components, I could never identify the Nurse as a human being.

And I had no idea why Sara Vickruck’s Mercutio was saying anything he said. As written, the character is a rich combination of mania, depression, and a desperation to reconcile the two through compulsive tale-spinning and braggadocio. I got the braggadocio in Vickruck’s performance, but that’s about it.

Like my ex boyfriend, overall, I wanted — and had hoped for — more.

ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare. Directed by Anita Rochon. On Thursday, August 11. A Bard on the Beach performance on the Howard Family Stage until September 24. Tickets


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