Gender bending adds LGBTQ appeal to Romeo and (Her) Juliet on stage at Toronto’s Bloor Street Church
The Headstrong Collective’s Romeo and (Her) Juliet thrives under the direction of Urban Bard Productions‘ master director Scott Emerson Moyle. He leads the cast to thrilling performances that alternate between side-splittingly hilarious and deeply emotionally resonant.
There are two major choices that I thought made this show sensational. The first is to set the show at the joint funeral of Tybalt (Melanie Hrymak) and Mercutio (Max Tepper) presided over by Friar Laurence (Lisa Karen Cox). I think this makes excellent use of the Bloor United Church as a found space.
The second is all of the gender-bending that gives us a same-sex pairing of Romeo (Leslie McBay) and Juliet (Krystina Bojanowski), a female Tybalt, a male Nurse (Shawn Ahmed), female Benvolio (Clare Blackwood), and the female Friar Laurence. Nothing inspires me more than gender- and race-blind casting and this cast was wonderfully diverse.
But it isn’t just these superficial things that make the show great. Moyle stages the play immersively, using every available level and surface in the church as a stage, and this makes the play lively for an audience who has to physically follow the action. This burgeoning technique is among the most exciting being used in theatre today and I’m glad to see more of it.
Moyle’s direction would be nothing without his incredibly talented cast. Every member of the cast is clearly capable of deeply nuanced, engaging performances since all ten of them deliver such rich performances in the show. It’s impossible to speak of standouts because they’re all equally fantastic.
This production expertly combines two of the most common interpretations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by allowing all of its actors to give their audiences their expert, well-rounded performances.
The adult characters get to emphasize the “folly of youth” interpretation that paints the relationship between Romeo and Juliet as an ill-advised, rushed, puppy love on steroids. The way that Cox delivers Shakespeare’s poetry in the speech where Friar Laurence chides Romeo for falling in love too quickly puts the emphasis on the words that support this interpretation, while still sounding like natural speech (which is no easy task).
The piercing wails of Richardson’s Mrs. Capulet after the death of Juliet have haunted me since I left the performance. Both she and Blackwood give deeply stirring performances as mourners that made me as an audience member feel how senseless the deaths of the play’s young people were.
At the same time, both McBay and Bojanowski make Shakespeare’s greatest love story feel genuine and inspired. The chemistry between the two is palpable (making their romance realistic) and both actresses bring the over-the-top, highly poetic aspect of their romance out through their delivery of the most famous speeches in the English language.
Add to these, the genius comedic performances of Tepper and Ahmed, Geoffrey Whynot’s genuinely terrifying angry Mr. Capulet, and Adrian Shephard’s slimy prep-school Paris and you have a production you don’t want to miss.
If we insist on producing Shakespeare’s plays over mounting original works, these productions must be as high calibre as Headstrong Collective’s Romeo and (Her) Juliet and they must also be as boundary pushing. This production brings new perspectives to a well-worn favourite and the result is astonishing.
Get thee to the theatre to see this show before its too short run is over.
- Romeo and (Her) Juliet is playing until September 20 at Bloor Street Church (300 Bloor Street West)
- Shows run Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, with an additional matinee on Friday September 19 at 1pm
- Ticket prices are $18 for students, seniors, and arts workers and $25 for adults and are available online, or in person at the venue 30 minutes before the show
Photo of Lisa Karen Cox and Leslie McBay by Nathan Kelley.