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SCRUTINY | R+J Is An Enchanting Remix On The Shakespearean Classic

By Paula Citron on August 24, 2021

Eponine Lee (centre) as Juliet with Alex Bulmer as Friar and Dante Jemmott as Romeo in R+J. (Photo: David Hou)
Eponine Lee (centre) as Juliet with Alex Bulmer as Friar and Dante Jemmott as Romeo in R+J. (Photo: David Hou)

Stratford Festival/R+J by William Shakespeare, adapted by Ravi Jain, Christine Horne and Alex Bulmer, directed by Ravi Jain, Festival Theatre Canopy, Aug. 12 to Sept. 26. Tickets available at stratfordfestival.ca.

Flashback. It’s 2007 and a new company is mounting a production of Hamlet at the Winchester Street Theatre, a venue better known for dance events. This Hamlet remix turns out to be an incredibly exciting performance, and I predict Why Not Theatre and its artistic director Ravi Jain are on the road to greatness.

Flash forward. It is now 2021, and Why Not Theatre is at the Stratford Festival with its adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, now called R+J. The production is so clever, so refreshing, and so engaging, that I declare it a runaway hit.

R+J is the brainchild of Jain, Christine Horne and Alex Bulmer with the latter being the lynchpin. Bulmer is blind, and in R+J performs the role of a blind Friar Laurence. The action is set several years after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and is a memory play. The friar is clearly haunted by the events of the tragedy, and his role in it.

The way the creators have played with the order of the scenes is nothing short of brilliant. This adaptation follows the mind of the friar as his memory recalls characters and events, leaping forward and backward through time. The characters also recite stage directions, which anchor place and time in the friar’s imaginings. Additional lines of dialogue are inserted only when necessary, so one never feels that the original play is compromised.

Key speeches are recited by different characters than in the play, while others are shortened or dropped altogether. (We get only a couple of lines from Mercutio’s Queen Mab monologue, for example.) The character roster is shortened to the bare minimum. The concentration of the friar is singularly on what led up to the deaths of the star cross’d lovers, and everything else is extraneous.

The ending of Shakespeare’s play has always been problematic because it continues long past the lovers’ suicides. A key element, or irritation as you will, is Friar Laurence recounting the entire story, which we already know, for the Duke of Verona and the parents.

In this adaptation, the friar’s speech has a raison d’être, because he can now pour out his heart, recalling the traumatic events with all the grief and guilt that burdens his conscience. In R+J, this speech takes pride of place.

Designer Julie Fox has designed a pleasant contemporary kitchen for the friar, who never leaves the stage. This means that director Jain can pop in the characters anywhere on the set as the friar recalls them. Juliet’s balcony, for example, has her coming through the window and sitting on a cabinet.

This production has energy and spirit right from the get go. The play begins with the stage direction that the cast comes stage front and introduces themselves and the role they are playing, which they do, smiling and relaxed all the while, and we like them already. Friar Laurence then takes over and begins his trip down memory lane.

Why Not Theatre was one of the first to practice diversity and inclusivity, and this cast covers the waterfront, so to speak. Gender-bending is also a key element, which leads to some very interesting performances.

Tom Rooney, one of the greatest of the Stratford actors, is the Nurse wearing the most perfect old lady pink cardigan (courtesy Ms. Fox). His performance works because he plays it straight, just layering in bits of telling physical detail from time to time, like fiddling with a button. This isn’t a drag show, but a real person.

Another veteran performer is the fine actor Rick Roberts as Capulet who also gives the prologue, setting the scene in the friar’s mind. For her part, Bulmer has been an advocate for disabled actors for over 30 years, and has built a distinguished national and international career both on stage and off. She plays Friar Laurence from the heart.

The rest of the cast is relatively young.

In an astonishing bit of casting, 14-year-old Eponine Lee plays the 14-year-old Juliet, and she can certainly handle the language. What poise she has. Lee also wrote two original songs for the show. Her Romeo, Dante Jemmott, appears to have recently graduated from York University. Both Lee and Jemmott were a little restrained in the beginning, but they did find passion in their delivery as the play progressed.

Because his part of Mercutio is severely cut, Sepehr Reybod didn’t have a chance to shine, but did bring zest to the stage in his few appearances.

Two actors really impressed me with strong character performances, command of language and excellent diction. Beck Lloyd, as both Lady Capulet and Tybalt, is a charismatic actor who dominates the stage, while Lisa Nasson makes a very strong impression in the usually corollary role as Benvolio. They are both performers who command attention.

Mention should be made of Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design. As well as the customary edgy electronica background music and appropriate sound effects, like a rainstorm, we also hear recorded lines from the play, both singly and overlapped. These random outbursts trigger memories for the friar. For example, the most repeated soundtrack line is Romeo’s plaintive “Hast thou no letters from the friar?” And of course, without that letter, he doesn’t know about Juliet’s pretend death.

I’m sure purists are going to howl about the colloquial tone of the Shakespearean language, but every line could be heard, and you could feel the keen attention of the audience around you. Director Jain delivers a production that is easy on the eyes and the ears.

One more production note. Unlike the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy that is theatre in the middle with the audience on either side, the stage in the Festival Theatre Canopy is against the wall with the audience ranged around it in a more conventional manner. It is almost like being inside a theatre. As well, In all the outdoor plays at Stratford, the actors wear microphones which, happily, gets around any acoustical problem.

One little cavil. Where I was sitting was right in the glare of the sunset which turned R+J briefly into a radio play, which was a bit of a surprise, I have to say, but hey, it’s outdoor theatre.

And finally, I freely confess that I suffer from Romeo and Juliet fatigue, but I found this production enchanting. Once again, Ravi Jain and his Why Not Theatre show why they are among the most adventurous and inventive companies in the country.

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Paula Citron
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