Hart House’s Romeo and Juliet is energetic and refreshing with a strong ensemble
The sentence “a fresh take on Romeo and Juliet” is a theatrical cliché. No matter how original you think you are, it’s been done before. An interracial cast? They were doing that before I was even born. Swapping the genders around? Downright overdone. A musical version? That’s West Side Story. This show has been produced so widely that there’s just not very much ground left to cover.
Yet somehow Hart House manages to pull it off.
This is a beautiful production, packed with colour and sound and—above all—movement. Choreographer Melanie Mastronardi has filled the show with acrobatics, grooving, grinding and a massive dollop of raunch, all of which flow surprisingly well with the text. The first act in particular is brimming with life and energy, and some of the director’s most challenging ideas are brought to life through meticulous, compelling and visually-arresting action.
And a lot of that action is remarkably bawdy: my show partner remarked that there seems to be a hip-thrusts-per-scene quota in effect. While this did begin to feel gratuitous, it does establish a contrast between the core lovers and the rest of the play. Within this staging, Romeo and Juliet are constantly presented with sex: friends joke around by dry-humping each other; skirt-chasing is a full-contact sport; even the Capulets own a strip club. But in their own world, just between them, sex is something much more chaste, innocent, exclusive and private. It’s an approach I’ve never seen before, but it works.
The cast is also more than willing to roll with it. Joshua Browne’s Mercutio is every inch the puckish, sexually-aggressive punk this staging requires; Lesley Robertson’s Nurse is a wonderful foil and has a sensibility well-suited to the role. But the real standouts—thankfully—are Paolo Santalucia as Romeo and Darwin Lyons as Juliet.
Lyons seems to be playing Juliet as if she were 14, full of pop-song sentimentality and unable to cope with the realities—and dangers—of love in the real world. Santalucia’s Romeo is older and more mature, but when he speaks of love at first sight, we believe him. The two have good physical chemistry, and both of them have the talent needed to play both sincerity and duplicity as the script requires. It does often feel like these two are in a completely different play, but that’s entirely the point: they are.
The soundtrack (selected by Director Jeremy Hutton) merges Italian hip hop with minimalist piano, and it works surprisingly well. While Brandon Kleiman’s set and costume design is visually interesting, the setting itself only emerges after you read the Director’s Notes—and, in my mind at least, that’s cheating.
But that’s all beside the point. This production is refreshing not because of its gimmicks, but because of its energy, because of its boldness, and because it’s simply tremendous fun to watch. A strong core cast, a strong ensemble, and some bold—but effective—directorial choices manage to keep us interested and invested in the story. It’s always a good sign when a Shakespeare audience is gasping and aaaaahing, and Hutton’s production more than delivers.
- Romeo and Juliet is playing at Hart House until November 24, 2012.
- Plays Wednesday through Sunday at 8:00 PM, with some weekend matinees. See website for details.
- Performances take place at the Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, 2 blocks south of Museum Station.
- Tickets can be purchased online, at the box office, or by calling 416-978-8849.
- $25 for adults, $15 for students & seniors. Alumni & weekend matinee discounts available, see website for details.
Photograph of Paolo Santalucia and Darwin Lyons (as Romeo and Juliet, respectively) by Daniel DiMarco.