by Lynn on January 13, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Last of Romeo and Juliet

At the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts, Barrie, Ont. Adapted from the words of William Shakespeare and directed by Mitchell Cushman. Designed by Nick Blais. Music and sound by Christopher Stanton. Fight director Simon Fon. Starring: Layne Coleman, Clare Coulter, David Ferry, John Gilbert, Luke Humphrey, Diana Leblanc, Jennifer Phipps, Alex Poch-Goldin, Sandi Ross.

Produced by Talk is Free Theatre. It plays at the Mady Centre until January 18.

The Last of Romeo and Juliet is a fearless, tender, cheeky, moving rendering of the Romeo and Juliet story with a twist. They still are star-crossed lovers. Their families still give them grief about who they want to marry. It still ends badly for a lot of people, and Romeo and Juliet especially. But the twist is that they are not frisky, giddy teenagers falling in love for the first time. They are seniors in a senior’s home falling startlingly in love for the last time.

The seniors in the home are not aging gracefully. They are aging with anger, frustration and simmering resentment. As luck would have it, the always quarrelling Montagues and Capulets are in the same seniors home. No opportunity is missed for one faction to insult the other and vice versa. The reason for the original quarrel, as when they were younger, is long gone. No one remembers but the resentment is till red hot.

We see Romeo first. He shuffles on slowly, bent, his hands shaking. And he drinks from a little flask. When he drops something on the floor it is with great effort that he has to bend forward to pick it up. When he flops in his easy chair after that it’s as if he’s done a long day of labour just to get that far. The words of Shakespeare are a huge influence in his life (did I miss hearing if he was an English teacher who taught Shakespeare? No matter, he knows his Shakespeare). Romeo is happy to quote Shakespeare to Friar Lawrence, the spiritual leader at the seniors’ home. Up to this point un-Shakespeare is spoken for the most part. Shakespeare seeps in quietly, subtly until that is the language of the play.

Romeo is teased and flirted with by his friend, Mercutio, in this case a woman. Mercutio is pushed in her wheelchair by another friend Benvolio and together they giggle and commiserate like two old friends growing older.

Their enemy is Tybolt, an angry, stuffed-cat-carrying woman who bites, slaps and physically abuses anyone in sight rather than talk. No plate of mashed potatoes is safe if Tybolt is there and sees an enemy.

Into this angst ridden seniors’ home comes Capulet, the harried middle aged son of Juliet. He has the unenviable task of putting his mother in the home, but hopes it will work out since his aunt Tybolt is there as well.  He hopes that his mother’s room can be next to her sister’s room. And he frets about the money it will cost.

Juliet is unhappy and really wants no part of the place. She would prefer to be alone, until she sees Romeo and he sees her. It is like a bolt of lightening. Each is smitten and each wants to know the other’s name. Their meeting is gently breathless, quietly intense.

Then we see the restorative power of love. Romeo begins to walk upright and not hunched. He stops drinking and shaking. He’s buoyant. Juliet softens too. Her anger turns to missing Romeo when he isn’t in sight of her. She limbers up doing ballet barre exercises.  When they kiss and profess their love, it’s with tenderness and a lifetime of experience that makes the emotion real and captivating.

In this case, Paris is a rich, dapper senior living in the Senior’s Home and of course can take Juliet off her son’s hands and pay for her. But as we know it doesn’t end well. Romeo is banished but communicates with by Friar Lawrence, by cell phone. Switches are crossed. Information doesn’t get passed on. And happiness is cut short.

I loved the fearless invention of Mitchell Cushman, who both adapted Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into The Last of Romeo and Juliet and directed the production. Not content with sifting through references of love in Romeo and Juliet he also took lines from other Shakespeare plays as well whenever love was mentioned. For example, Paris telling Capulet “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” from King Lear; the speech of Hamlet telling Ophelia he really didn’t love her and never gave her sweet presents; a heartbroken King Lear leaning over his dead daughter Cordelia screaming “Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl,” only in this case Romeo doesn’t quite say the ‘L’ and the word comes out something else, but still heart-squeezing. And even Macbeth is referenced. Every quote is appropriate and fits the situation.

Cushman has filled his production with affection. Characters are always hugging or kissing each other. Benvolio puts his arm around Mercutio and kisses her head; Capulet kissing his aunt Tybolt on the cheek and later his mother. Even young Friar Lawrence has a compassionate attitude towards his senior flock. This production is filled with such tenderness because of this gifted, sensitive director.

Scenes move with fluidity when two orderlies move, shift, and rearrange an array of wheeled sections that confine an area; create the sense of a balcony; become a ballet barre; define a room. This clever design is thanks to Nick Blais. A designer who has worked his wonders in previous Talk is Free Theatre productions.

And the cast is a dream. The two sensual and tender lovers are David Ferry as Romeo and Diana Leblanc as Juliet. He is almost boyish and energized when Juliet comes into his life. Before that, as we have seen, he was doddery, drunk, and ridiculed. Now he takes charge. His emotions are high. Everything moves at warp speed since he met this diminutive woman.

As Juliet, Diana Leblanc can make her combative and grudging. When she meets Romeo she is girlish and transformed. Their scenes are sensual, open-hearted and embracing.

As Capulet, Alex Poch-Goldin is both the loving son and the harried, guilt-ridden care giver who has to find a place for his mother.  And he is at the end of his wits trying to get her to marry Paris.

As Benvolio, Layne Coleman provides much kindness and affection towards his friend, Mercutio. Mercutio is played by the almost impish, Jennifer Phipps, a stalwart of Canadian theatre. Phipps, looks small in her wheelchair, but she is glowing when speaking the Queen Mab speech, almost offhandedly while flipping pages in a book. It is poetic, graceful and so compelling.

As the fiery Tybolt, Clare Coulter, is quiet and lethal. She prowls, her stuffed cat affixed to her shoulder. And when she pounces it is almost stealthily but with vigor. As Paris, John Gilbert is dignified and confident. The fight with Romeo is both hilarious and frightening. The same can be said of all the fights, created by Simon Fon. As Friar Lawrence, Luke Humphries has that respect of the young for the older people at this facility. He tries to keep the peace but sometimes is thwarted by the very people he is caring for. The same can be said of Sandi Ross as the Nurse. The Nurse is a jolly busy body. She has genuine affection for these people who are fighting tooth and nail against aging ungracefully. Their struggle is fearless, As is this production. And it’s a gem. Don’t miss it.


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