Theatre review: The Verona Project – a worthy adaptation

I’ve seen a few productions of Romeo and Juliet over the years, both good and bad, but despite its familiar story of the ultimate sacrifice for love, I have never actually cried.  That is until last night, as I watched Evan Frayne’s adaptation at the Pacific Theatre.

The Verona ProjectThe tears came early in act two as the star-crossed lovers hear separately of the Prince’s decision to banish Romeo.  For Juliet the revelation is double-edged, for she not only hears of Romeo’s punishment, she must also grapple with the killing of her cousin Tybalt at Romeo’s hands.  Susan Coodin is perfectly conflicted in her familial grief and the thought of never seeing Romeo again.  It is then Aslam Husain’s turn, giving us a Romeo so devastated by the thought of being permanently separated from Juliet (‘tis torture, and not mercy: heaven is here, Where Juliet lives), I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one in the theatre reaching for a tissue.  Coodin and Aslam are easily believable and connected as the “pair of star-cross’d lovers”.

Director Frayne has surrounded his central characters with a few equally strong actors.  Mack Gordon gives us a Mercutio who is unrestrained, injecting a youthful bravado where future consequences are never allowed to interfere with living in the moment.  Rhys Finnick as Tybalt is perfectly smoldering from start to quick death, and Christopher Cook is effective as Romeo’s confidant Friar Laurence.

Troy Anthony Young, as head of the Capulet household, actually had me thinking of Marlon Brando in The Godfather and the underlying intensity that allowed him to easily command respect.  Unfortunately director Frayne does him a disservice in an unfocused ball scene.

Alison Chisholm, who plays a number of smaller roles here, struggled as the Prince, who in her first scene comes across as hesitant and almost apologetic.  Phil Miguel’s Benvolio is all but lost against the strength of Husain and Gordon and Maryanne Renzetti as Nurse appeared to be somewhat confused, especially in act one, which is a shame given the lens Frayne places on this character.  Kaitlin Williams as Lady Capulet was unsurprising.

In his decision to re-arrange and edit Romeo and Juliet to a relatively short two hours, at times the pace felt as rushed as the story.  As an example, the act one ender loses much of its dramatic impact as there is virtually no time for Romeo to reflect on the possible fate of his best friend Mercutio before Benvolio rushes back in with the news.  Frayne gives the same treatment in a finale that had me wanting more.

One surprise, given the break-neck speed in which Frayne takes us through the story, is that we languished so long in the fight scenes.  Here fight choreographer Rhys Finnick needed to take a page from Frayne’s book.

Set designer Lauchlin Johnston gives us a nice, simple raised set that is easily changed; in its transformation to the mausoleum, coupled with the low hum of Lois Dawson’s sound design, it helped set a perfect mood.  Mishelle Cutler’s music, on the other hand, added little to the overall feel of the show.

Winner of the Sam Payne prize for best newcomer at the recent Jessie awards, it is not hard to see why Evan Frayne will be one to watch in the coming years.  But more importantly, for now, his The Verona Project is also worth watching.

4 Out of 5 Stars The Verona Project

Adapted from William Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet by Evan Frayne. Directed by Evan Frayne.  A Pacific Theatre presentation of A Stone’s Throw Production.  On stage at the Pacific Theatre through July 2 plus July 6 & 7, 2011.  Visit http://www.pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.

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