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UFV's post-apocalyptic Romeo and Juliet definitely worth a look
From the moment its creepy child chorus crawls from the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Verona in a tattered white dress to introduce the play, until masked soldiers bark at the audience to disperse at the end, the University of the Fraser Valley’s (UFV) production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which opened Friday, throws its audience just a little off balance at every turn.
Not a bad way to go if you’re trying to get people to take a new look at an old story.
The play has never been as much about love as it has been about two kids forced to navigate a hostile world with nothing but their own unmanageable adolescent impulses to guide them, since their would-be/should-be adult guides all end up dropping the ball in one way or another. (We know how well that works out.)
And UFV director Paul Gelineau’s gritty, Mad-Maxesque adaptation lays bare their doomed struggle in a way that’s sure to resonate with a generation weaned on steering a similarly unguided path through the moral free-for-all of the virtual, online world.
Set in a not-too-distant future, after an unspecified disaster has wiped out civilization as we know it, Gelineau’s feuding Montagues and Capulets are part of a volatile new world of urban clan warfare, kept only tenuously in check by a gun-toting, uniformed dictator-Prince (Phaydra-Rae Gagnon) and her shadowy, Gestapo-like forces.
The plot unfolds against a shifting industrial wasteland, suggested by a bare-bones set made up of sections of rolling scaffolding up to three storeys high.
These are used to nifty effect, as in one scene showing the fatal breakdown in communication between Romeo (Eli Funk) and Friar Laurence (Gabriel Kirkley) about the plan to fake Juliet’s death.
The scaffolding also provides a perfect perch for the plays impish chorus (eight-year-old Bethany Myers), whose eerie giggles ring out periodically as if to mock the best-laid plans of the characters below.
The young lovers, played by real-life, fourth-year UFV student couple Funk and Rae MacEachern-Eastwood, first lock eyes across a leatherotic Capulet’s ball filled with nasty throbbing dubstep and grinding couples and threesomes.
Funk and MacEachern-Eastwood capture enough of their characters’ giddy naïveté to make for a fun balcony scene and to set their love apart from the sordid and cynical couplings that surround them. (That awkward moment when you walk in on your mom—Lady Capulet, played by Renee Weisgarber—making out with your cousin—Tybalt, played by Dylan Coulter.)
But chemistry-wise, the couple falls a little short of projecting those “violent delights” that ultimately account for their tragically idiotic decisions later on.
Third-year UFV English major Ashlyn Tegg, meanwhile, is deftly cast as a female Mercutio.
Revisioning the traditionally male character as a faux-hawked tough chick with tandem machetes is probably the single most fruitful bit of Gelineau’s post-apocalyptic adaptation.
As a young woman living in a violent new world, his Mercutio is forced to bury her essential vulnerability beneath a veneer of masculine bravado, adding extra poignancy to the character’s emotional instability.
(And Tegg acquits herself admirably—both with the machetes and during her brief lapse of sanity in the clutches of Queen Mab.)
Third-year theatre student Liam Archer delivers another standout performance as a manly and convincingly violent Lord Capulet.
It seems a shame Gelineau’s script keeps him so unidimensional, variously cutting and reassigning his grieving-father lines to Friar Laurence.
One gets the sense watching Archer negotiate the transformation from controlling alpha male to devastated dad could have been something special.
Geneva Perkins is entertaining as nurse and, more importantly, generates genuine warmth in her relationship with Juliet, making her betrayal—when she tells her young charge to just go ahead and become a polygamist by marrying Paris—appropriately horrifying.
Besides solid performances in key roles, the UFV production throws out a few unexpected little gems as well—like when a trashy and scantily-clad Gagnon, in a second role as Apothecary, is awakened in flop-house surroundings to provide Romeo with drugs to off himself.
Playing his cards close to his vest before opening night, Gelineau wouldn’t say much about the UFV production. “What I can tell you is that you’ve never seen this before,” he told the Times. “It’s never been done like this before.”
Like the proud dad, the UFV director might be excused for a little exaggeration, but opening night did not disappoint.
UFV’s Romeo and Juliet runs until March 23 at UFV’s Performance Theatre at 45635 Yale Rd. (at Airport Road). Ticket prices range from $11 to $23 (plus service fees) and are available for purchase by phone at 604-795-2814 and online at www.UFV.ca/theatre.