ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare (Hart House Theatre). To November 24. $25, stu/srs $10-$15. 416-978-8849. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Even a mismatched pair of star-crossed lovers can't drain the life out of Hart House Theatre's production of Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet. Director Jeremy Hutton's bold choices and strong sense of rhythm make the oft-produced play feel fresh and spontaneous.
Hutton, HHT's current artistic director, has set the play in modern-day Verona, where Romeo's pals are b-boys grooving to Italian hip-hop, a bicycle-riding Friar Laurence frequents the city's drug dealers, and Capulet and Paris's discussion about the latter marrying the former's daughter takes place at a sleazy strip club.
These touches seldom feel like gimmicks, and to Hutton's credit, as the tragedy deepens, the hip-hop is replaced by a reflective, mournful piano riff at key moments.
It's a shame, then, that the leads lack chemistry. Paolo Santalucia captures Romeo's dreamy, poetic nature, but Darwin Lyons's headstrong Juliet overpowers him at every moment.
Passionate, pragmatic and at times petulant, Lyons's Juliet is obviously her father's daughter; Jesse Phillips's Capulet is a smooth talker and control freak. But the romance between the young lovers doesn't register.
Still, there's lots to enjoy in this production. Lesley Robertson has thought through each line and physical gesture of her prattling, meddling Nurse, Joshua Browne captures the mercurial nature of Mercutio (although his Queen Mab speech could be delivered with more smoothness) and Scott Moore delivers the Friar's lines with total commitment. It's even a good choice to make Jeremy LaPalme's Benvolio a bit of a geek, allowing him to say his bits of exposition with a touch of pedantry.
The fight scenes are particularly well staged - no surprise since Hutton is a frequent fight director. And Brandon Kleiman's set, atmospherically lit by Andre du Toit, morphs beautifully into a variety of locations.
You know when a DJ booth transforms into Juliet's balcony, you're watching something special.