by Lynn on August 25, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Withrow Park, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Andrew Joseph Richardson
Directed by Andrea Donaldson
Set and costumes by Jenna McCutchen
Lighting by Andre du Toit
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Fight director, Mike Dufays
Cast: Wayne Burns
Andrea Davis
Phillipa Domville
Vivien Endicott-Douglas
Richard Lee
Brendan McMurtry-Howlett
Ellora Patnaik
Kaitlyn Riordan

A gender-bending take on Romeo and Juliet that is more confusing than revelatory. But it’s one of the most beautiful looking productions I’ve seen in any park in recent years.

The Story. You all know the story. Two families of Verona, Italy—the Monagues and the Capulets—have been feuding for so long they can’t remember the reason. Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet meet by chance and fall in love. Trouble ensues around them. It doesn’t end well.

The Production. Director, Andrea Donaldson has envisioned a Verona in which strong women run things. So Lady Capulet (Phillipa Domville) is very vocal and takes on the dialogue of her now absent husband, Capulet. An interesting change since Capulet was such a bully, but I digress. A woman (Ellora Patnaik) now plays Montague (as well as the Nurse) using his lines. The Prince of Verona is now played by a woman (Andrea Davis).

In her program note Donaldson describes Romeo as “a gender-fluid Romeo” She also says: “…we’ve dispensed with limited notions like dominance, sexuality and gender and instead embraced the notion that love is limitless, desire is limitless and the belief that forgiveness and hope are possible and will set us free.” Ah huh? Surely Shakespeare’s play on its own shows the endless possibilities of love, desire, forgiveness and hope? But I digress again.

Andrea Donaldson has set the play in the south end of Withrow Park, so don’t go to the North end where Shakespeare in the Ruff’s has usually played for eons, like I did looking for a group of thespians. The action takes place on the hills and between several trees in the south end.

Clusters of delicate lights nestle in the branches of the various trees around the space. Kudos to Jenna McCutchen for the set, the lit spheres and the magical look and Andre du Toit for his beautiful lighting. Characters make entrances down the hills holding clusters of branches that are in turn lit with several lights in the branches. The eye-popper is that all through the production characters carry large illuminated white spheres. The light inside the sphere both illuminates the actor carrying it and provides a wonderful fantasy-like effect. To see the spheres bobbing on the distant hills as the daylight fades and the darkness of evening arrives, is truly magical. In a more pragmatic moment one might wonder what those spheres represent, but I’m able and willing to suspend my disbelief here.

What is more problematic is the supposed ‘gender-fluidity’ of Romeo played by the lively Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Two women play Romeo and Juliet but they are not playing the characters as two women, even though I hear Romeo referred to as ‘she’ (I’m pretty sure I heard that), and the rest of the time he’s described as ‘he’. Also when Romeo and Juliet are married he is pronounced her ‘husband.’ OK so what does ‘gender-fluid’ mean here? One can have an esoteric notion about the play, but logic is also good, and I’m missing it with this concept. Man, woman, transitioning are reasonable, rational descriptors. But to leave it in a nether world is confusing, if not naïve.

What needs more directorial attention is the scene in which Romeo and Juliet first see each other and becoming smitten. The way Andrea Donaldson has staged it here is muddy and unclear. Donaldson has placed a distracting line of party revellers behind Romeo and Juliet with the couple in front. Both Romeo and Juliet wear masks at this party, so how they could espy the other and fall in love with their looks from afar is a mystery. They then come together to dance and get acquainted. The initial problem still exists. How do they actually ‘see’ the other with the masks on?

Attention should also be paid to actors not quite comfortable with the language of Shakespeare. I perceive the Nurse as a flighty, silly woman, and not the ‘powerhouse’ Donaldson describes her as in her program note. But Ellora Patnaik could slow down in her delivery and actually let us hear the words and sense of them. Similarly Brendan McMurtry-Howlett as Mercutio is a bit of a wild man, but he too could tone down the breathless bellowing.

As Juliet, Kaitlyn Riordan is demure and gentle but certainly enlivened when she meets her Romeo. She has a handle on the language as does Vivien Endicott-Douglas as Romeo. Phillipa Domville plays Capulet as a self-absorbed, social-climbing clothes horse who cares more for status than she does for her daughter.

Mike Dufays has created terrific fights that are rough and tumble and almost dangerous, and for this show, that’s terrific. Andrew Joseph Richardson has cut the show to a fast one hour and forty-five minutes, but you do get the sense of the play.

Comment. I can appreciate that since we live in ‘interesting times’ director Andrea Donaldson wants this production of Romeo and Juliet to reflect those changing times. It’s just that her concept seems to be on a slippery slope with the play, you know, the play, the reason we’re sitting in the park in the first place. It is a beautiful production with some good performances but the concept is muddy and isn’t quite convincing.

Produced by Shakespeare in the Ruff

First Performance: Aug. 16, 2016.
Closes: Sept. 4, 2016.
Cast: 8; 3 men, 5 women.
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.