Review: Romeo & Juliet goes modern and gender fluid

Shakespeare in the Ruff sets Shakespeare’s classic romance in a matriarchal world

ROMEO & JULIET by William Shakespeare (Shakespeare in the Ruff). At Withrow Park (725 Logan). Runs to September 4. Pwyc ($15 sugg). See listing. Rating: NNN

Shakespeare in the Ruff can be relied on for a stimulating, unusual take on the Bard, and the company’s fifth production, Romeo & Juliet, continues the tradition. Much of the show works in terms of storytelling, but Shakespeare’s poetry isn’t always delivered clearly.

Director Andrea Donaldson offers a modern interpretation (there’s a touch of Rihanna and a call of “You go, girl,” along with Jenna McCutchen’s contemporary costumes), with the central couple played by two female actors, Kaitlyn Riordan (Juliet) and Vivien Endicott-Douglas (Romeo). This Romeo is gender-fluid, and his (the masculine pronoun is used throughout the play) interest in Juliet isn’t an issue for most of those around him.

(This isn’t the first time that local companies have cast a woman as Romeo there have been two other such productions recently.)

This is a world controlled by women: Verona’s prince is female (Andrea Davis), and both warring houses are similarly helmed, with Phillipa Domville as Capulet and Ellora Patnaik as Montague.

And Friar Lawrence (Richard Lee) isn’t your standard Catholic clergyman his clothes and accessories suggest various world faiths.

The action moves swiftly in the company’s new Withrow Park location, on a long flight of stairs and a hillside in the southwest section of the park characters go “offstage” by stepping behind trees or disappearing over the hill.

This production of the iconic love story may be short on poetry, but it’s believable in terms of Romeo and Juliet’s delight in their budding romance. Riordan is initially bookish but later impulsive and generous, Endicott-Douglas brash but with a hidden dreamy side that appears in the ballad he sings (with the audience as backup chorus) to her. Their balcony scene is both comic and touching, the control moving back and forth between them.

Brendan McMurtry-Howlett plays both the boyish, excitable Mercutio, here with a touch of wildness about him, and the more proper Paris, Juliet’s conservative suitor. Also doubling are Patnaik, as the bawdy nurse, who has trouble reading Google Maps and dances at one point with kathak-style ankle bells, and Lee, whose fiery, loose-canon Tybalt constantly insults Romeo by referring to him as “she” and, at one point, “villainess.” In this snipped version of the play, with a cast of eight, Wayne Burns’s Benvolio is given more to do than in the original.

Too bad the language is occasionally muddied some performers convince us what their characters feel less through their words than through their passionate involvement in the action.

A special nod to Andre du Toit’s lighting: fairy lights hang from trees or are bunched with hidden flashlights into “bouquets” held by the actors to shine on themselves and others. Du Toit has also devised large and small balls, some covered with feathers, that illuminate dark spots on the hill or highlight a scene.

With the aid of those and other hand-held lights, he creates an ethereal, shimmering world Donaldson puts the lighting to good use, notably in Juliet’s funeral procession.

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