Review: Romeo and Juliet (Bard in the Park)

Bard in the Park tackles classic romance with wit and humour in Toronto’s Kew Gardens

Now in their 11th Season, Bard in the Park are community-based players that liven up Toronto’s Kew Gardens every summer with their performances. This year’s outing, Romeo and Juliet, is a well-rounded production with the courage to give the star-crossed lovers a little​ more life. While it is Shakespeare’s most famous romantic tragedy, Bard in the Park have staged a Romeo and Juliet that addresses the politics, comedy, and even hatred lurking within the antique text. It is a heartfelt performance, but with the cajones to veer into dark comedy. Shakespeare in the Park can often be harder than it looks.

To bring action to the text is already a heady task. Add in the challenges of performing outdoors, and even veterans of the Bard will proceed with caution: in most cases, lighting and stage effects are minimal. Actors must compete with planes, traffic and other park goings-on to be heard. Viewers can get cold, fidgety, and mosquito-bitten. It’s an uphill battle for any artist, and it speaks to the passion that Bard in the Park possesses that they do it every year, pro-bono.

The setting for this production, Italy in the year 1919, is a well-thought-out choice. Setting the play in a time and place defined by scarcity serves the production well from staging to casting, highlighting the politics and darkness of the text. The presence of gender-bent characters, for instance, reminds us how it feels for women to enter typically male roles in times of need. Feuds are not glamorous, and escalate to bloodshed within moments, but this is by design. Fight director Jackie Mahoney, who also plays a distinctly intimidating Tybalt, helps keep the show moving.

Thankfully, the cast are abundant with energy and avoid cliches. The titular lovers have many moments where actors must be careful not to make modern audiences chuckle, mostly at their deaths. The duo opt for quiet dignity and make those “big” moments feel intimate and real.

Alan Shonfield’s Romeo is candid and sweet, elevating the role to much more than a handsome hero reciting poetry. His Juliet, played by Natasha Ramondino, is grounded and more determined than her sheltered circumstances make her appear. They are well-complimented by the presence of co-stars such as Dylan Evan’s hilarious Mercutio, and Sean Killacky as a highly charismatic Lord Capulet with hidden depths.

A pleasant surprise in this production was the decision to keep the final scene from Shakespeare’s texts where the two Houses commit to peace at last. Although not always included in readings or performances, it provides necessary closure to the drama, and sets up an appropriate bittersweetness to end the tale on. Although Verona’s ruling families will cease its bloodshed, the image of two parents standing over the bodies of their children, debating logistics is possibly one of the most nihilistic things I have seen in live theater.

Overall, there’s nothing quite as therapeutic as good Shakespeare on a pleasant summer night, and Bard in the Park’s Romeo and Juliet hits the spot. A charming production, with unexpected but welcome bite.

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Photo provided by the company.

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