The In-Person Experience: Stratford Festival’s R+J
I tried to wipe away the annoyance of a fellow theatre goer who was complaining to the very patient box office person about how terrible her seats were. “I can’t really see the stage, and we booked it sooo long ago, for our anniversary! There’s got to be something you can do! I’m so disappointed with you all!” Little did she know that this production had a lot to say about the visual, but I really tried to separate myself as I waited patiently behind her to pick up my ticket. She went away furious, but somewhere, deep inside me, I hoped she found some release, or at least a sense of peace, as it was a beautiful and warm Sunday afternoon in Stratford, Ontario, and we were about to see some live theatre, something we have all been missing for so long. And for me, especially after reading a bit about the stance of the production, this event was about something much bigger than great sight lines.
So I made my way into the Festival Theater’s tent, the one they had erected beside their main stage for their intrepid new take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, entitled R+J. My heart was big and wide open, looking forward to the mystical transportation away from the silly world of good seats or bad. This was the second production of the weekend, with The Rez Sisters the evening before being the first live and in-person play that I have seen since March 2020 (that review will be coming soon). But more importantly, R+J was about something big and important; love, desire, connection, and how it can bring disaster and heartbreak to those who don’t see it for its true value.
Directed by Ravi Jain (Soulpepper’s Animal Farm), a magnificent theater creator, who is credited, alongside Christine Horne (The Thistle Project’s Gorey Storey) and Alex Bulmer (Common Boots’ Scadding), with this fascinatingly adept adaptation, the production finds its stance inside the convoluted and guilt-ridden mind of its central character, the Friar, portrayed with an intense and touching despair by the luminous blind actor, Bulmer. Her Friar is flooded with memories, both happy and terribly sad, for their pivotal role in the tragic outcome of these two lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The words and actions play havoc with their mind, as Bulmer’s Friar frets their time on this detailed set, courtesy of designer Julie Fox (Stratford’s Macbeth) and lighting designer André du Toit (Evermore’s Dry Powder). The conceptualization is ripe for interpretation, as it spins around through the muck of the Friar’s memory, rehashing an ending that is troubling and disturbing to their spiritual core.
Just as the director did with Prince Hamlet in a 2017 production that I have, sadly, only read about, this classic Shakespearean tragedy becomes the floor plan of something bigger and more investigative. With Prince Hamlet, Jain centered his production around a performance by a deaf theatre artist, Dawn Jani Birley, as Horatio, using American Sign Language as the medium to unfold this recounting. In a similar manner, this inventive director has taken the well-known tragic tale of these two star-crossed lovers, and unearthed a different central beating heart, the one found inside the blind Friar who can’t help but feel the weight of their untimely death during their every waking moment. Bulmer, captivating in the role, for the most part, shapes the structure around that heart, giving a descriptive shape and form to every element that is engaged with, and every torturous memory that assaults the Friar’s mind and soul.
In the beginning, before we dive headfirst into the drama of the day, they all file out and line up; all of the actors who are about to embody this tale, explaining who they are, and how they look and are dressed. It’s a telling nod to the seeing-impaired stance of the production, in the same way that all actions, stage directions, and notes are described verbally by someone in the cast throughout. This formulation is a compelling configuration, adding a poetic edge to the proceedings and the surroundings, especially with the descriptions by Dante Jemmott, who is making his Stratford debut as our dynamic Romeo, who, as written, adds a smart layer, like they all do, that reminds us of the play’s and specifically, his character’s lyric romanticism. It is his downfall in a way, and his heart, in a way, that stand out here inside his descriptive text, as we are drawn inward by the Friar to the past, and to the couple’s enchantment with each other, and idea of eternal instantaneous love. ‘Love at first sight’, you might say, but here, inside this strategic production that is constructed with the seeing-impaired in mind, that the concept is played with and unpacked musically (thanks to composer and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne), as never before and with such expertise.
As the deconstruction of the remembrances flow forth, the power of the lines spoken are lifted up and inwards becoming musical songs and duets that fill the space with such a strong aroma of love that it’s hard to take in emotionally sometimes. I have seen this tragic story enacted so many times that it sometimes, if not done extremely well, struggles to enter fully into this lovestruck world of pain and magic, but here, with the tender inclinations of Jemmott’s Romeo and Eponine Lee’s (Shakespeare in the Ruff’s The Winter’s Tale) magnificent Juliet, this particular restructuring of R+J pulls us in with a language and an air that wraps itself around us with ease, making each of their scenes magical and captivating. We feel their innocence tug, and even though we are only verbally told about their intense physical interactions, we never actually see them embrace or kiss. They barely even touch one another, if my memory holds, which is appropo to this production, I suppose. Now, whether this is a COVID creation or an outward artistic construct, I’m not sure, but they, as well as that beautifully choreographed fight scene with Benvolio, dynamically portrayed by Lisa Nasson (Roseneath’s Spirit Horse), and Mercutio, cleverly played by Sepehr Reybod (Theatre ARTaud’s Blood + Soil) against a nasty seething Tybalt, compellingly portrayed by the brilliant Beck Lloyd (Lloyd also shifts seamlessly back and forth when she plays the complex and fascinating Lady Capulet), the idea uncovers much, shedding light on the emotional core, and delivering the stabs as painfully clear as any fight choreographer could possibly create.
The set-up is brilliant, in theory and action, although sometimes, I must admit, that even with the intimacy that this show enlists, the energy occasionally stalls when the focus sits too long on the heart-broken Friar sitting in a chair pinning for the failure of the plan. But all that is forgotten the moment Tom Rooney (Stratford’s Tartuffe) appears as the Nurse. Rooney finds layers upon layers in this role, completing the sentences of their ward, the bold shy Juliet, filling in the tender spaces of attachment with every smile and nod. It’s a captivating engagement, worthy of the biggest praise that I have heaped on any actor in this role since Mariam Margolyes opened my eyes to the part’s brilliance in Baz Luhrmann’s epic and marvelous film version, “Romeo + Juliet.” (Yes, I’m noticing the parallel “+” as a signal for some strong reimagining from within. A fascinating equation.) Speaking of that film, I did ponder and miss Paul Rudd’s Dave Paris in his spaceman suit (when don’t I?), while also wondering what the legendary Pete Postlethwaite would have done with the role, like he did in the film version as the Father/Friar. But hold on, now I’m just fantasizing.
Deep in this fascinating reconstruction, the haunting alliance is so happily proved. The passionately powerful Mercutio and Tybalt fight overlap with the descriptive violence inside the Friar’s mangled memory. The guitar playing teenage nightingale that is Juliet, is quickly knocked about by Rick Roberts’ visceral portrayal of Capulet, overturning the tenderness with a blast of violence that unhinges the complex Lady Capulet, regally embodied by Lloyd (Stratford’s Richard III) all dressed in stylish white. As the memories of the Friar race to the already known deathly conclusion, with all the cast mourning and turning away from the doomed separated lovers, tears surprisingly welled up in my eyes. This play, even when well done, is so known to me that it rarely affects me that authentically, leaving me speechless and connected. I can only imagine how magnificent this concoction would be in the darkened theatre, reconstructing murky memories in pools of light that aren’t possible outdoors, but stop, once again I am fantasizing. The Friar’s epilogue over-explains the guilty confessional in the end, once again stalling the proceedings, but the lump in my throat steadfastly remains, making me take in the sadness of this known outcome as if it was new. In its blindness, this R+J soars, finding a tender engagement in its descriptive telling that is as dazzling and connecting as one could possibly hope for.