A True Dream Staged in High Park

christine horne as juliet and jeff irving as romeo
photo by chris gallow
When I heard the casting announcement for Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park production of Romeo & Juliet, I felt fairly certain in my heart that the production would be a Shakespearean marvel not to be missed. Indeed, I am very pleased to be able to recount that Jeff Irving is perfection as Romeo, Christine Horne is divine as Juliet and the entire play is an absolute dream and delight.
It is so inspiring to me that Canadian Stage’s Artistic Director Matthew Jocelyn considers Dream in High Park an integral Torontonian tradition that, since its inception in 1983, has reached out to new theatregoers and introduced the magic of the theatre to the picnicking public in the park. Jocelyn says that these productions in High Park have paved the way for many audience members to begin to explore Toronto’s rich community of theatres all year round. This is quite a feat considering that Shakespeare is so often cited by critics as being the playwright whose challenging text and obscure historical references often alienates the public from the theatre. It is a strong testament to the calibre of these performances that infuse Shakespeare’s words with sincerity and shrewd understanding, which allows the play immediate accessibility for its audience.
Dora Award winner Vikki Anderson directs this play with a distinct concept; eight members of a traveling theatre company become delayed in a train station in Verona, and to dispel their irritability they decide to, with the help of the Station Master, perform a scaled down version of Romeo and Juliet for the other stranded passengers. At the onset, one is acutely aware of Anderson’s concept, as each actor plays at least two different parts, which means that they are continually donning and shedding their distinct, but simplified, costume pieces. Yet, very quickly these conventions melt away, as Shakespeare’s story pulses so powerfully from within the heart of the play that the audience is swept away.
Often our connotation of Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare wrote sometime between 1591 and 1595, is the tragic tale of its two star-crossed lovers and the enmity of their parents which condemns them both to an untimely end. Yet, although Romeo and Juliet is considered to be a tragedy, Shakespeare has also peppered it with humour and it is so refreshing to see this production revelling not only in the drama, but also in the brilliant comedy which is intrinsic to the text.
The source of much of the laughter in this production comes from Ron Kennell’s brilliant performance as Juliet’s Nurse. Kennell brings great balance to this role teetering between a burlesque in drag and the expression of genuine maternal love for Juliet. Caroline Gillis shines brightly as both Romeo’s cousin Benvolio and Friar Laurence, speaking with exasperated rationality as both characters. As Friar Laurence she cuts into Romeo astutely, admonishing him for his wild, unreasonable and pathetically dramatic behaviour. This reminds the audience that Shakespeare does not consider Romeo to be the paragon of a romantic or passionate lover, and encourages us to scrutinize and examine this love story for its flaws and inconsistencies.
That being said, the production also has a striking ability to elicit sadness and empathy. There was one particularly fascinating moment when Jamie Robinson, as the slain Capulet cousin Tybalt, suddenly rose from the spot where he had fallen, and then as his actor character, helped to lift the bench, upon which the imagined Tybalt lay, and carry it sombrely offstage. The result was beautifully stirring and poignant, as it appeared that Robinson was in mourning for his character. Jeff Irving as Romeo and Christine Horne as Juliet have electric chemistry with one another and their deep sense of friendship, their eagerness to play and share every moment with one another, and the sparks that fly whenever their lips meet make their impending doom genuinely heartbreaking.
Jeff Irving’s lines flow from him as though he were born to speak iambically. He has captured the passion of youth, the spilling forth of Romeo’s candid thoughts and emotions, and the wild range of his manic mood swings with meticulous sincerity. With Mercutio (beautifully played by Dora Award winner Clinton Walker), both are boisterous boys, scurvy knaves seeking fun and adventure. With Juliet, Irving’s Romeo adopts a slightly clumsy tenderness which is immediately endearing. Dora Award winner Christine Horne speaks Juliet’s poetry like each word she says is being uttered for the first time. Her Juliet is a revelation. Distinctly fourteen years old, she meanders perfectly between impatient and adolescent stomping of her feet and the eloquence, strength of character and bold courage required to pursue her heart’s desire. This Juliet is not a victim. She is not a subservient, naive pawn caught between her father and her husband. Instead, Horne gives Juliet not only a feisty sense of empowerment over her own fate, but also infuses her with a racing heart and joyful excitement that reflects the intensity of her feelings for Romeo magnificently.
Romeo & Juliet begins at dusk in the amphitheatre in High Park, and as the story becomes increasingly darker, the night encloses magically around its nine performers. With simplicity and sincerity in bringing Shakespeare’s words to life, this production truly doth teach the torches to burn bright.
Romeo & Juliet plays until September 5th, 2010 at the Amphitheatre in High Park at Bloor Street West and High Park Avenue. The show is PWYC at the gate with a suggested minimum of $20.00 for adults; children 14 years old and younger get in for free. For more information please call 416.367.1652. There are free all-age programs for children on Family Day Sundays, which include opportunities to meet the cast, backstage tours, Shakespearean games, workshops etc. For registration please call 416.367.1652 or email family@canadianstage.com.
If you’re looking for an irresistible way to celebrate Canada’s Birthday, there will be FREE Canada Day festivities in High Park beginning at 4pm at the Dream Site. The event features a carnival theme, with live music, games, a bouncing castle, cotton candy and an opportunity to meet the cast and crew of Romeo & Juliet, enjoy a backstage tour, theatre-inspired crafts and activities, cake, pizza and more. There will also be a rousing rendition of “OH CANADA” led by none other than the World Dominating Canadian musical theatre and cabaret superstar SHARRON MATTHEWS, followed by a FREE performance of Romeo & Juliet. If you have children, this is the place for them to revel in the specialness of being Canadian.

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