I was very lucky to be able to get in to see the closing night performance of Leroy Street Theatre’s/Avant Bard Productions’ adaptation of Romeo and Juliet – The Deliverance of Juliet and Her Romeo – at Unit 102 Theatre last night.
Adapted by Harrison Thomas, Ashleigh Kasaboski and Anne van Leeuwen, and directed by Thomas, this version of the classic tale of star-crossed lovers is set in a modern-day religious right dystopia (think Handmaid’s Tale meets Bountiful, B.C.). The Capulets are members of the dominant cult, and Lord Capulet (Scott Walker) is their prophet/leader; Lady Capulet is a trio of sister wives that includes the traditional Nurse role (Michelle Cloutier, Kelly Van der Burg and Michelle D’Alessandro Hatt – with D’Alessandro Hatt playing the Nurse wife, called “Aunt” by Juliet); and Juliet (Kasaboski) is the dutiful, but lively, daughter and prized possession. Romeo (van Leeuwen) is a woman, with only her mother Lady Montague (Emily Nixon) and cousin Benvolio (Cam Sedgwick) to call family – and all are reviled heretics in the eyes of the Capulet cult. Living outside these opposing families are the socially liberal missionary Friar Lawrence (Christopher Mott) and his daughter Mercutio (Lauren Horejda), who is BFFs with Benvolio and Romeo.
In this Romeo and Juliet, the hate between the two families is mostly one-sided, with the more powerful Capulets lording over all – and not above acts of self-righteous violence to keep control and purge their society of undesirables. And, here, the young love between Juliet and her Romeo, cut short by hatred and intolerance, is all the more tragic – you’d think that, by the late 20th centruy, people would know better.
Played out on a starkly furnished, almost Spartan, set of chain link fences and wooden boxes – and backed by a live soundtrack of guitar, banjo and a selection of hymns, including a particularly lovely choral performance of “Down to the River to Pray” – this Verona is physically divided, the Capulet commune more like a prison than a community.
The Deliverance of Juliet and Her Romeo has an excellent cast. Stand-outs include Kasaboski, who brings a youthful passion and energy – and desperate bravery – to Juliet; and van Leeuwen’s Romeo is a lovely combination of sensitive, romantic and melancholy (this production also borrows text from Hamlet), whose courage tends more toward the brash and impetuous compared to her more measured lover. Walker’s performance as Capulet is riveting – his Capulet’s domineering, at times violent, behaviour and ‘my way or the highway’ attitude is all the more disturbing, as it’s all done in the name of God. D’Alessandro Hatt’s Lady Capulet 3/Nurse is compelling and compassionate – surprised to find that the Romeo to whom she delivers Juliet’s message is a woman, but not allowing prejudice to sway her opinion of Romeo’s good character. It is towards this wife that Capulet directs his violence when she attempts to intervene when Juliet refuses to marry Paris – and her eventual support of the match seems to come more from a place of protecting Juliet’s welfare than betrayal. Mott’s Friar Lawrence, who also acts as the Chorus, does an excellent job of juggling the conflicting political and emotional situations he finds himself in; striving to keep the peace and protect his family, his resolve pushed to the breaking point when his daughter is killed and the Capulets plan a mass suicide after Juliet’s ‘death’ (drawn from real-life 1978 Jonestown Massacre). And Horejda is remarkable as Mercutio (also plays the Apothecary) – cocky, irreverent and exceedingly clever, with a tortured soul beneath the wise-cracking antics, and so in love with Romeo.
The Deliverance of Juliet and Her Romeo is a powerful, moving adaptation – and the big deal here is not that the young lovers are women, but that the world in which they live is ruled by the hate and narrow-mindedness of an extreme religious right group that ultimately implodes upon itself. Bad news is, the run is over. Good news is, you can keep an eye out for Leroy Street Theatre and Avant Bard Productions – and this fine cast – to see where they go next.