ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare (Shakespeare in High Park/Canadian Stage). At the High Park Amphitheatre. Runs to September 1. PWYC ($25 adv reserved seating). canadianstage.com. Rating: NNNN
Director Frank Cox-OConnell scores big in this years tragedy installment of Shakespeare in High Park by translating the age-old Montague and Capulet feud into the dark corners of contemporary European soccer culture.
This action-packed and beautifully stylized urban sports treatment, which nicely references both the English and Italian roots of the play as well as this summers World Cup, opens with a blast of tense street violence, and doesnt relent for the full 90 minutes.
Cox-Connell (who starred as Hamlet here two years ago) has a deft touch for style, intensity and attention to detail, which results in an impressively rich look and feel for this risky treatment.
For example, the moment where Romeo (David Patrick Flemming) first glimpses Juliet (Rachel Cairns) at the Capulet ball has a cute and clever set-up that is played in slow-motion. Without giving too much away, its a fantastic sequence capable of producing first-kiss goosebumps.
Another standout moment is Mac Fyfes strong and hilarious take on Mercutios Queen Mab speech, which starts off profound but takes an unexpectedly comic turn. In addition, many early scenes are set in Veronas large soccer stadium, with the backs of cheering spectators visible down a corridor indicating a high-stakes match is in progress just offstage.
Cairns is great as a down-to-Earth art-punk-styled Juliet, sporting a sharp, sarcastic wit and lots of deadpan one-liners. Flemmings Romeo starts off a bit wooden compared to his more ebullient pals Mercutio and Benvolio (Peter Fernandes), but quickly comes to life once inspired by love. Jenny Young is endlessly enjoyable as Juliets animated and doting nurse, and Jakob Ehmans beady-eyed arch-hooligan Tybalt is spot-on disturbing.
Cox-OConnell absolutely nails the storys tender moments (especially the tragic climax), but clearly relishes action as well, producing many edge-of-your seat moments. Whether its a brutal brawl with improvised weapons, a full-on impassioned sword fight (choreographed by the always-on-point Simon Fon) or adventurous climbing sequences set around Juliets balcony, quick pacing and inventive choices draw you into the immersive vision offered here.
The Brutalist block set design, which quickly conjures a modern stadium and cityscape, might seem a little drab and nondescript at first, but these massive concrete canvasses slowly come to life with splashes of colour, and other artful twists, gradually establishing a cool neon-noir feel that perfectly accentuates the gritty romantic saga unfolding.
If the darker side of the Bard speaks to you, this is one of the best productions the park has seen for years. Dont miss it.