Review: Romeo & Juliet – a spirited production that lives up to its promises

When one tinkers with Shakespeare it comes with great risk and great responsibility: the risk in alienating an audience and the responsibility in keeping true to the work.  Fortunately, for the most part, the Theatre at UBC production of Romeo and Juliet manages both, with a spirited production that lives up to its promises to tickle, thrill, tantalize & titillate.

Romeo & JulietAn inventive telling of the classic love story, this is a Romeo and Juliet stuck in the wild (and sexy) imagination of Director Catriona Leger as it pulls elements of burlesque, cabaret, buffoonery and even, dare I say it, some images inspired by the recent Twilight frenzy.  But while it draws from this wide range of styles, it still manages a cohesiveness that helps to put a new and ultimately entertaining spin on what is arguably Shakespeare’s best known play.

Always the danger when so laden with style is the penchant for what could be considered theatrical sleight-of-hand, where misdirection sometimes covers a less-than-perfect handling of the text.   While I had this feeling a number of times here, fortunately they were short-lived and in the quieter, more intimate moments the cast demonstrated a thoughtful understanding of Shakespeare’s verse.

Case in point for me are three of the many pivotal moments in Romeo & Juliet: the first time when Romeo sees Juliet and we must instantly believe he has fallen so deeply in love, the second in the balcony scene where the two lovers profess their love for the first time and finally, in the death scene itself where the ultimate sacrifice for that love is realized.

Here all three of these scenes are handled beautifully by Meaghan Chenosky as Juliet and Jameson Parker as Romeo.  Ultimately we believe in their love and isn’t this what the story is really all about?

But don’t get me wrong, while Chenosky and Parker do a great job in making us believe, there is some amazing work being done by others in this young cast.  Standouts include a Mercutio (Ben Whipple) that is both sassy and sexy, a Nurse (Moneca Lander) that is both funny and nurturing and a Lady Capulet (MariaLuisa Alvarez) that is both hard and gently caring.

Director Leger appears to have taken a line from another of Shakespeare’s plays quite literally moving her players into the audience where, perhaps not the world, but at least all the theatre becomes a stage. I am usually not one for breaking down that fourth wall between players and audience as it takes a skilled hand to make it work well.  While I appreciated the effort here, the players need to fully commit to this interaction as it felt, at times, somewhat forced and a little timid.

On the technical side, Conor Moore’s lighting is mostly subdued which works well with the overall mood being set by Director Leger and in foreshadowing the ultimate death of Romeo & Juliet. Carmen Alatorre’s costumes are absolutely scrumptious to look at and much like Leger’s overall eclectic style still manages a unified look and feel.  Jill Wyness must also be complimented for the extensive make-up that was required and for its successful execution.  Ana Luisa Espinoza’s set design is smartly minimal given Leger’s use of the entire theatre as the stage.

There is much to like here from Vancouver’s next generation of actors and technicians in an evening of Shakespeare that is as much fun to watch as it was obviously to perform.

I see that the entire run of the show is now sold out and deservedly so.  If you were not lucky enough to get tickets consider the standby line (call the theatre box office to ensure it is still operating as it was last night).

3 1/2 Stars out of 5Romeo & Juliet
Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, University of British Columbia
20 January – 30 January 2010 (Monday-Saturday @ 7:30pm)

Tickets are $15-$25 available by calling the Theatre UBC box office at 604.822.2678.  Visit http://www.theatre.ubc.ca for more information.

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