BWW Review: 'A TENDER THING' Fizzles and Frustrates
Ben Power's 2009 play A Tender Thing is a creative re-imagining of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, with the two title characters as older figures in a lifelong relationship. Soulpepper Theatre Company's current production (on at the Young Centre through October 1st) features real-life couple Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk as the two star-crossed lovers. Though their performances are filled with warmth and knowing, they can't escape an essentially dreary production that pulls away the beauty of Shakespeare's language, even as it revels in some over-theatricalized decisions that mute the genuine emotion sitting at the heart of a less-than-perfect work.
The eighty-minute work (performed without intermission) features dialogue from Romeo and Juliet that's been re-arranged, and includes lines from other Shakespearean works, including Twelfth Night. It also touches on issues of aging and infirmity, including assisted suicide; the poison that kills Romeo at the end of the original here becomes the fatal elixir that releases Juliet from her physical suffering. Power's script, a product of contemporary remix culture. is an intriguing mix of provocation, poetry, imagination, and youthful vigour (the playwright himself was born in 1986), and while it's a smart idea, it doesn't always work. A Tender Thing strips away the dramatic context from which Shakespeare's words originate, leaving mainly hollow shells of pseudo-emotion and rendering what should be deeply felt expressions of human experience as little more than either fussy verbose ideas or the dodderings of a lovey-dovey couple in their twilight years. Many moments that should be meaningful come off as merely clever, with Juliet's delivery of Mercutio's original Queen Mab speech (though passionately delivered by Nancy Palk here) a prime example of cleverness taken a step beyond the creative, into the realm of glib sacrilege. Surely that isn't what Shakespeare intended?
Script issues aside, Power's exploration of aging and love could be better served by less mawkish staging. Director Michael Shamata has set the piece in a heavily stylized dream-world without specifics, and while that approach may work in other pieces (notably in Laszlo Marton's staging of Tartuffe, also on at the Young Centre), it's frustrating in this instance, because it both highlights the limitations of Power's script and doesn't give the audience anything meaningful to chew on. We're left to guess at details (including Juliet's infirmity) and fill in holes (their lost daughter, for instance). Moments that should have more heft and weight - like where Juliet goes through an old photo album - have a perfunctory feel, with an over-zealous use of music and sound telling us how to feel, as opposed to allowing for a genuine moment. At times, It's almost as if Shamata doesn't trust the script quite enough, while at others, seems too enamoured to allow for details that might make its characters (and their words) real for the audience. The inclusion of slow, strings-heavy music between scenes (by Mike Ross) feels extraneous and cloying, reminding us of the self-conscious nature of Power's remixing, and Monica Dotter's awkward choreography (visually, an odd combination of mime and waltzing) totally distracts from the genuine, palpable closeness between the leads.
Still, while Ziegler and Palk offer heartfelt performances as well as lovely diction, their combined power isn't enough to save A Tender Thing from being disappointing and more than a little frustrating. "Time moves all things on," says Juliet at one point, early in the play. Time here, however, hardly moves anything, or anyone, and that's a shame.
All Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.