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considering that Shakespeare is so often cited by critics as being the playwright whose challenging text and obscure historical references often alienates the public from the theatre.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.

Salon Automaton: Bravo to Us All

nathalie claude. photo by rolline laporte (rolline@videotron.ca)
Sometimes I see productions that prompt me to take a moment simply to appreciate the creativity that was required to produce such a unique piece of theatre, and that was the experience I had in the audience of Nathalie Claude’s Salon Automaton (The English Language Premiere) playing until December 12th at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
We are introduced to Nathalie Claude’s perfect hostess, a woman who runs The Salon Automaton, a place where she and her guests, the Dandy Poet (voiced by Clinton Walker), the Cabaret Artist (voiced by Moynan King) and the Drinking Patroness (voiced by Leni Parker), convene each week to discuss societal matters, but only to the point of inspiration as to avoid confrontation and unpleasantness among them. What makes this play instantly fascinating is that Claude is performing with three turn-of-the-century automatons who have been programmed to speak and move their eyes, mouths and arms as “actors” in the production. The result is that, especially at first, the play resembles the grown up version of a child’s tea party with her or his stuffed animals, and Salon Automaton offers all the same challenges, such as how three automaton guests can be expected to drink champagne or eat cucumber sandwiches. On the surface, at least initially, this play plays with all the conventions of the absurd, lofty, yet continually flippant, conversation that was such a staple of society in the Victorian and Edwardian Eras. Here, all the conversations are constructed simply to exude an aura of cleverness, importance and to allow for the ego to become both swollen and stroked, yet all the characters speak with meticulous diplomacy and the three automatons are obsessed with appearing to be the most polite, the most refined and courteous of guests. Of course, the irony is that, as automatons, everything that they do and that they say is inherently superficial and completely devoid of emotion or intellect.
Nathalie Claude’s intentions are deliberately vague. Throughout most of the play I found myself wondering whether Claude’s character, the hostess, knew that her guests, and her only friends, were robots, or if the automatons were tricking her in a sort of science fiction type twist. It seemed as though the audience was meant to associate the automatons with the genial society members from this period in history, which made me wonder if the Dandy Poet, the Cabaret Artist and the Drinking Patroness were merely being represented as automatons because their real-life counterparts were similarly programmed and obsessed only with the way in which they constructed their own reality to be seen and judged by others. I also wondered if I was meant to make a connection between the way these societal robots interacted with one another a century ago with the way in which we conduct ourselves in the society of the present. How much are our interactions with one another programmed deep within us? “Hello, how are you?” “I’m fine thank you, how are you?” Certainly one could make the argument that many of us bustling through the 21st Century with our Ipod or cell phone at our ears have many of our communications on autopilot. Then, just as I began to think that perhaps I had grasped the message that Claude was trying to make, the play suddenly became very dark and with the darkness came an unexpected amount of black, twisted humour and several plot twists that I won’t ruin for my readers, except to say that they simultaneously answered a lot of the aforementioned questions, while raising a whole new set of them. Where is the line between reality and robotics? Can an automaton be programmed to have emotions, and if one is programmed to “feel” sadness and to exhibit the outward signs of pain and anguish, how different is that from being human? The automatons are “forever un-living and yet undead”, which contrasts sharply to Claude’s hostess, who continually must face her own mortality. At the same time, this play is a very creative examination of the fact that although it may appear that we are surrounded by others, often we are actually “toute seule.”
Nathalie Claude gives a passionate and fascinating performance creating a portrait of a woman who enjoys being indulged, having her robotic friends encourage her to play the hostess, the pantomime actress, to create her own automated world where everything is perfect, perfectly happy, which provides an escape from a precarious reality where that is not necessarily so.
Salon Automaton is a play that I would recommend because despite the fact that it may feel a bit long at times, it offers its audience a lot to consider about humanity and the world that we live in. It is also, perhaps, the most innovative piece of theatre that you will see in Toronto this year.
Salon Automaton plays until December 12th, 2009 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street, Toronto). For tickets and more information please call 416.975.8555 or visit www.artsexy.ca.