Skeleton puppets, ghoulish masks, candle-lit shrines and other Day of the Dead symbols appear in Bard on Bower’s atmospheric Romeo and Juliet, which opened Thursday at Red Deer’s Bower Ponds.
Prime Stock Theatre’s artistic director Thomas Usher transported the star-crossed lovers to Mexico some 200 years ago in his largely entertaining production running on the outdoor stage. And you get the sense that Shakespeare would have approved of the trans-Atlantic move.
His famous tragedy already contains so much foreshadowing of premature death that setting the play in the middle of Mexico’s macabre ancestral celebration makes perfect sense.
The novel setting allowed Prime Stock Theatre director Thomas Usher to try incorporating heel-clacking Latin dance moves at the masked celebration at the beginning of the play, and a matador-inspired sword fight between Mercutio and Tybalt that included a waving red cape.
Friar Lawrence got to marry Romeo and Juliet in front of a Catholic altar full of flickering candles and flower offerings. And several characters, including Juliet’s Nurse, were able to make the most of Spanish speech inflections.
Of course, this is all window dressing. You should be able to set Shakespeare’s ill-fated romance anywhere and rely on the power of the story and the language to draw audiences in.
Usher’s innovative Bard on Bower production was successful at doing just that — especially in the first half.
The director did a great job of casting actors who can speak Shakespearean verse like it’s second nature. As a result, audience members understood what was going on and could sit back and luxuriate in the Bard’s poetic imagery.
For instance, when Romeo, played by Aaron Casselman, first laid eyes on Juliet (Natascha Schulmesiter) at the masked ball he said, “Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear, beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.”
You know he thinks she’s hot, but nobody says it like Shakespeare.
Casselman plays a Romeo who’s young enough to be in love with love, but old enough to recognize his feelings for Juliet go deeper than his former infatuation with Rosalind. In the early scenes, Romeo’s romantic infectious giddiness helped energize the production.
Schulmeister, who has chemistry with Casselman, comes across as a willful 14-year-old, which is the right age for Juliet. She hits the emotional highs and lows of a young woman who finds her love thwarted from every side. But Schulmeister needs to find more subtle in-between emotions to keep her Juliet relatable and take some edge off her desperation.
Juliet’s Nurse is usually played by a much older woman than Nicole Leal, but Leal managed to ham it up for laughs, putting on fine lady airs when she first meets Romeo and his friends Benvolio and Mercutio, and later playing dumb when Juliet pumps her for information about Romeo’s plans.
Daniel Vasquez made a fine, supportive Benvolio, and Andres Moreno was a suitably threatening Tybalt. But Derick Neumeier, who has a gift for delivering long, dense verse with off-hand charm and humour, really stood out as Mercutio.
I would have liked to see his death scene played out on stage. Having Mercutio die off stage seemed to take some of the emotional wind out of this production.
The second half of the play had other curiously flat moments, such as when Romeo heard the news that Juliet was supposedly dead. Inexplicably, he seemed to take this in stride when he had broken down earlier, merely at news of his banishment.
A greater head-scratcher was the handling of the tomb scene, when Romeo and Juliet make their last dramatic speeches, and the play descends into tragedy. Both speeches were given with the characters’ backs to the audience at the same time as other secondary actors wandered onto the stage, completely distracting from the deathbed drama.
At more than three hours with intermission, this play clocked in nearly an hour too long. Maybe the length went over well with the original crowd at London’s Globe Theatre, but I suspect they didn’t have to swat mosquitoes.
Outdoor productions generally need to be short and snappy. There was no need, for example, for the long-winded discussion between Romeo and the apothecary on the subject of procuring poison, or the final sword fight outside Juliet’s tomb between Romeo and Paris (Tyler Reinhold).
That said, I’d still recommend packing some lawn chairs and plenty of mosquito spray and heading down to Bower Ponds because there are lots of great reasons to see this production — not the least of which is Eric Pettifor’s strong depiction of Friar Lawrence.
Pettifor doesn’t play the friar as a buffoon or as a despot, but rather as a kindhearted man who wanted to help out, but couldn’t stop the momentum of tragic circumstances unfolding.
Technical aspects of the show are also praiseworthy, including Gwen McCagg’s authentic-looking Mexican costumes and Heather Cornick’s sparse set with an eye-catching fountain.
Romeo and Juliet runs at 7:30 p.m. tonight, July 24, 28 and Aug. 2, and at 2 p.m. on July 27 and Aug. 3.
Bard on Bower’s As You Like It opens on July 25.
Admission is free, but donations are greatly appreciated.