Recently, I decided I’d never see another production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Across the years, I’ve watched a number of productions, on stage and film and television. Too many of them were either irritating or unconvincing. Still, I wanted to see this one, performed by the Classical Theatre Project (CTP), mostly because of Adam Pellerine, a young actor I’d met while attending other plays. Adam is fresh out of theatre school, and now, suddenly, he’s playing Romeo on a large stage, in one of Canada’s most exquisitely adorned theatres, the Winter Garden. Just talking to Adam, he’s a handsome, sweet, rather quiet fellow, and frankly, I had doubts about him commanding a giant stage. I’m happy to say he does it, and quite handily, too. I’m also relieved to find that my interest in Shakespeare’s drama about young, tragic love has been rekindled. The Bard really is a crack storyteller.
Romeo and Juliet is about the recklessness of sex and the transformative possibilities of love. Get this wrong, and the play fizzles and falls off course. But if you cast a winning Romeo and Juliet, in this case Adam Pellerine and Lauren Dobbie, the play flies straight as an arrow, aimed directly at the heart.
The CTP’s production surrounds the star-cross lovers with a mostly veteran cast, athletic as hell, able to leap all over the stage, pronouncing every word clearly. Director Charles Roy deploys the actors effortlessly, using both natural and stylised movement. Most of the actors play more than one part.
Jeff Hanson plays Mercutio and Prince, and as always, gives remarkable voice and physicality to his roles. Benjamin Blais plays “stormy” Tybalt with unabashed energy and Jeremy Hutton is forceful as Juliet’s short-tempered father, Capulet. Annie Briggs and Anna Wheeler are wonderfully engaging as Lady Capulet and Nurse, respectively, and Jeffrey Simlett is genuinely touching as both Friar Lawrence and Romeo’s father Montague. And let’s not forget Joshua Wiles, who’s quite terrific as Benvolio, and as the Apothecary, who sells Romeo the poison that propels the plot to its grievous end. Overall, the action moves swiftly, though I wished there’d been more pauses and shadings given to dialogue. A play, like dance, requires punctuation, giving the audience key moments to absorb the emotions, especially when the words are spoken by such competent actors.
But what makes this Romeo and Juliet memorable for me is the fact that I saw it with a young audience, mostly kids around 14 or 15 years old. Several buses brought them into the lavish theatre, and they were surprisingly well behaved. Teenagers KNOW what this play is about, and though the language may seem remote, they understand the action implicitly. This story speaks directly to what they’re going though, and there were moments when the vast theatre turned electric with excitement. The boys respond heartily to every expression of machismo, and the girls sigh and moan every time Romeo snuggles Juliet.
This production is far more open about sex than any show I would have seen at their age. Shakespeare’s a bawdy playwright, and it shows in language and gesture. What’s depicted on stage is nowhere near as graphic as any music video, but with live theatre, the dynamic is different. Emotions are intimate and felt, and the audience responds instinctively. For instance, in the bedroom scene, alone with Juliet, Romeo strips off his shirt and suddenly, I was nearly deafened by the sound of hundreds of young women, squealing. No one should be surprised. Adam Pellerine has a gymnast’s physique. But he also communicates something all true romantic leads have, the aura of a beautiful loser. His clear eyes are full of dreamy clouds, and this actor’s a natural for a wide range of lead roles, from any period.
This production has a lot of imaginative visuals in it. For instance, there’s the famous balcony scene, but instead of bothering with a real balcony, Juliet stands on various cabinets and trucks piled high, offering the young lady her perch. Romeo, entranced by her beauty, stands on a lower platform, which rotates about her, as if his heart orbits before the constant sun itself.
The stars in the heavens are a perpetual source of imagery in the background, constantly reminding us that outside forces work against the union of these lovers. To the young, this is a cautionary tale, about the forces that seem to swim all about them, often invisibly, that may threaten or destroy their dreams. But the play also offers a powerful lesson for the adult world, expressed so forcefully by the poet Dylan Thomas when he wrote, “Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.”
In lucky and gifted hands, drama, like life, renews itself.
The Winter Garden Theatre:
Classical Theatre Project. Tickets at: