Romeo and Juliet Redux strips it down and dials it up

By Chrissy Steinbock — Sun, 09/10/2016 - 00:35

What do you get when you distil one of Shakespeare’s best known stories down to its emotional core? That’s the premise for David Whiteley’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet now playing at the Gladstone Theatre.

Presented by Plosive Productions Romeo & Juliet Redux is intimate, immediate and intense. Whereas the original Shakespeare play runs about two and a half hours Redux is down to just 80-some minutes. The text has been condensed, scenes and characters have been cut, some characters have been combined, costumes deemed excessive. What remains is a cast of only four actors on a bare stage with two props between them. Supported by a live soundscape performed by Scottie Irving (The Peptides) and lighting by Laura Wheeler, the team hone in on the  passionate love, jealousy and hate at the heart of the story then dial them up making Romeo & Juliet all the more relatable whether you know it well or could use a refresher.

I got the chance to speak with Whiteley ahead of opening night to learn more about this unique take on a familiar tale. He explains that the vision for this re-imagining was to “offer audiences something that brings you into a different world form your ordinary life but also a different world from conventional theatre,” something unlike anything you’ve seen before. Romeo and Juliet Redux certainly delivers on that front.

The theatre becomes a transformed space designed to unsettle the audience and bump them off the typical script of a night at the theatre. Without giving too much away, the room has been set up to envelop you. Though some will find it immersive, others may find it a touch claustrophobic. It’s a combination of Whiteley’s set design, lighting by Laura Wheeler and soundscape by Scottie Irving that create this unsettling, immersive effect and amplify the tumultuous emotions at centre stage.

David daCosta plays Romeo with a charming earnestness, diving into the dreamy lovesickness, tortuous angst and impulsiveness of a teenager still figuring everything out.  As Juliet Mekdes Teshome also plays up the thrill and confusion of first love, all bashful glances and giddy daydreaming.

Lawrence Evenchick and Robin Hodge do a nice job of juggling multiple roles, sometimes shifting character on a dime without missing a beat. Evenchick does an impressive turn as murderous, hot blooded Mercutio in one scene and the doleful nurse mourning Tybalt’s death in the next. As Benvolio, Tybalt, and Lady Capulet, Hodge does not so much play a handful of roles as she embodies seething jealousy and the forces set against Romeo and Juliet’s union. It’s clear that all the actors were pushed to dig deep for some truly affecting expressions of raw emotions. Each player seemed to have their own emotional breaking point where they cut loose – daCosta playing Romeo’s brokenness when he is banished and then when he finds Juliet in the tomb, Teshome’s Juliet desperately doomed at the thought of marrying Paris, Hodge’s Lady Capulet spitting rage at Juliet for refusing Paris, and Evenchick as Mercutio hungry for a fight.

Scottie Irving from the Peptides performs the soundscape live in each performance, amplifying the ever shifting emotions onstage and immersing the audience further into the show’s alternate reality. Using an array of organ sounds and distortion effects on two synthesizer keyboards Irving crafts a plush though understated layer of sound, that works on the subconscious level in focusing your attention. When I asked him about his approach Irving explained that creating the soundscape is largely an improvisatory, process.  “They’re players but I’m also a player in a sense. It’s sort of like the jazz of sound design,” he says. Laura Wheeler’s live lighting also plays an important role in pulling the audience in close and supporting intensity of the experience. The murder scene was that much eerier drenched in blood red light.

This staging presents an interesting juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s unfamiliar flowery language and more modern physical interpretation of the text. The focus on intimacy and emotion also means stripping away the element of social hierarchy and the expectations that one will act according to one’s place in it. Explaining some of the choices made in the adaptation Whiteley says, “The less implicated people were in what’s going on between the core characters the more likely they were to go by the wayside.” Most scenes show the characters in private moments where they have the freedom to be candid in their confessions and interactions.

Thanks to the skilled cast and David Whiteley’s careful direction, the show clips along at a swift pace. At times the push to keep things humming came off as rushing, which had an effect on the clarity of the text. Mind you, the actors did have the added challenge of competing with a prominent sound element; nonetheless, it was unfortunate that some of the language was lost in the shuffle. In these moments the cast’s easily read physicality, the soundscape and lighting ensured that the mood and intent of each scene was still clear. The pacing and immersive staging make for an experience as dizzying as it for the characters caught in a storm of powerful emotions and irreconcilable circumstances.

Though it will likely rankle purists,  Romeo and Juliet Redux is a brave interpretation that delivers on intensity, disrupts expectations and leaves a mark.

Romeo and Juliet Redux 
runs through to October 15
Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30pm
Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.

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