Review: Mason and Sears Shine as ROMEO AND JULIET at the Stratford Festival

Directed by Sam White, this production is worthy of a revisit to one of Shakespeare's oft Played Tragedies

By: Jun. 02, 2024
Review: Mason and Sears Shine as ROMEO AND JULIET at the Stratford Festival
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The final performance of Opening Week of the Stratford Festival’s 72nd Season is one familiar to all audiences. ROMEO AND JULIET opened at the Festival Theatre last night and provided a strong conclusion to a very successful opening week. Director Sam White – who directed last season’s excellent WEDDING BAND – draws on the strengths of her artists and gives us a relatable and moving rendition of this well known tragedy.

This marks the 13th time that ROMEO AND JULIET has been put on in the 72 years of the Stratford Festival – the most recent being an under-the-tent adaptation entitled R+J in 2021. It is certainly the play that this writer has seen most frequently at the Festival, and I am pleased to say that once again, I find myself taking something new away with me and resonating with different moments than on previous occasions. It makes sense that this play is done so frequently by the Festival. It is not only a favourite among Shakespeare lovers, but it has entered the cultural zeitgeist to a degree unmatched by any of Shakespeare’s other plays with the exception perhaps of HAMLET. One need look no further than the number of references to it in SOMETHING ROTTEN - also currently being performed at the Festival Theatre.

I suspect part of the reason why the story of ROMEO AND JULIET is so popular and so familiar is that it encapsulates the perceived stakes of young love and heartbreak. It is often said that for young people, the stakes feel higher than they really are. This is used to explain rash decisions and teenage angst – but here, the stakes truly are high for Romeo and Juliet. – Yes they do certainly make rash decisions, and on multiple occasions, everything would have worked out had someone just paused and waited a moment, the predicament they were in would have never existed without the flaws and failings of the adults in the story. This too, feels relatable to the real world.

As the star-crossed lovers, Jonathan Mason and Vanessa Sears have great chemistry. Their flirtation in the “holy palmers kiss” scene and their playfulness in the balcony scene allows for scenes that have been played so many times by so many performers to feel fresh. They bring the necessary sense of youthful innocence to the roles without falling into the trap of seeming whiny. The characters’ decisions and actions frustrate, but it’s because they are likeable and the audience is rooting for them.

Sears has already had a splendid career and is celebrating her fourth season with the Stratford Festival after being standby for the lead in NEW YORK, NEW YORK on Broadway. Although she has performed Shakespearean roles in the past, this season is the first time she is doing so at the Stratford Festival. She was excellent as Olivia earlier this week in TWELFTH NIGHT and here she shines as young Juliet. White utilizes Sears' musical theatre experience and has her open this play by singing the prologue (accompanied to great effect by percussionists Graham Hargrove and Jasmine Jones-Ball). She also shows off her soprano by singing a beautiful Aria later in the play.

Music is used very effectively in this play with the percussionists returning to the stage multiple times to set the tone for the moment at hand. The drumming, paired with choreography by Adrienne Gould during the party scene is very well done and a fun piece of theatre. Later, the forboding and rhythmically dissonant call and response between the two percussionists leads us into climactic moments of the play to great effect.

The fights in this play are also well done. Fight Director Anita Nittoly (who also serves as Intimacy Director). The choice is made to end the fight between Romeo and Tybalt with Romeo killing his adversary by strangling him rather than with his sword. It makes it more personal and intentional, which in turn adds additional nuance to Romeo as a character. There are of course, multiple references in later scenes to Romeo "spilling" Tybalt's blood - which I realize can be a metaphor but is technically no longer accurate and this did admittedly make me chuckle. I still like the choice though.

Regardless of how long I have been coming to the theatre and how many productions I have seen over the years, the delight that repertory theatre brings me will never cease. On Monday night, Jessica B. Hill and Vanessa Sears portrayed Shakespearean heroines Viola and Olivia, and here they play mother and daughter. Hill's Lady Capulet drew an empathy from me that I don't always feel with this character. Still youthful herself, with limited autonomy in her own life, her failings in terms of how she parents' Juliet are very human and her horror and despair and finding her daughter dead not once, but twice is heartbreaking.

Equally as heartbreaking in her discovery of Juliet is Glynis Ranney as the Nurse. This is in fact the moment I dread most in this play because we see this happy, caring, funny, loyal woman's whole world shatter before our eyes. Ranney is as devastating in this scene as she hilariously endearing earlier in the play where she elicits some much deserved laughs.

Other standouts include Emilio Vieira as the hot-headed Tybalt, Andrew Iles as the manic and complex Mercutio, and the always reliable Scott Wentworth as Friar Laurence.

This ROMEO AND JULIET is worthy of a return to this play for those who have seen it many times and is also a worthy first time experience for the younger generation who is ready to sink their teeth into it.

ROMEO AND JULIET continues in Repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 26th.

PHOTO CREDIT: David Hou


Comments

Andrew Kelm on 6/3/2024
I'm not sure why I spent the second act wishing the lead characters would just hurry up and die. The set and costumes were lovely, and the actors stood up straight and said their lines clearly, but at the end of the play when the two families shake hands and make up, I found myself thinking, "oh yes, that's what it's about. I forgot…" I think that could be an issue with this production – the plot points are all there, but the pageantry of the romance overwhelms the context. For example, at the beginning, the prologue is wasted by having it sung in a way that the words are unintelligible, so you don’t get the clear message that this is going to be about a fight between two families that ends tragically; and the opening scene is spent establishing the feel of a sunny Verona street and the jocular camaraderie of the young men rather than revealing the restless threat of violence underlying the adolescent posturing. If more attention had been paid to conveying the ever-present danger – as it is in West Side Story, for example – I think I might have been more engaged. But it could just be that my seat was uncomfortable. At the end, the audience leapt to its feet in a standing ovation – as they always seem to do in this part of the world.


Fact checker on 6/4/2024

Fact check: The fight was based on a real fight. Being choked by metal aka jewelry will in fact cause blood and bruising. Much love. Xo 




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