From February 23 to March 4, SFU students from the faculty of performance arts brought the star-crossed lovers of Verona and their entourages to life on stage at SFU Woodward’s. They’ve worked with director Cole Lewis since September on hours of workshops, rehearsals, text analysis and spontaneous, trial-and-error creative challenges.
As soon as spectators step into the theatre, the gorgeous sets paint the modern aesthetic that will be reprised by the sound and costume design. Actors were also adorned with old-fashioned ruffled collars that interfered with the fall of actresses’ long hair or seemed cumbersome.
The massive structure of unpainted plywood is as imposing as it is full of surprises, and though it may seem plain, its intelligent design and exploitation fits every scene in turn. Doors punctuating the set and opening a private and separate room in the back meant that scenes rolled into each other quickly, and you could never predict where to look, which helped to make a familiar story new. Romeo himself cut through the audience on his way to Juliet’s balcony.
Romeo and Juliet jumps at the audience from the beginning, where a dynamic entrance and fast-paced choreography sets the violent and tense atmosphere of Verona, where the Capulets and Montagues act out an age-old feud. Duels and a mise-en-scène, emphasizing the use of the enormous space, and near-constant movement highlight this energy and urgency. During a Q&A following the last matinée performance, Lewis revealed that her interest in Verona as a divided world was one of the factors prompting the play’s selection, particularly given how evocative it is of current events.
Secondary characters your English teacher may have neglected came to life and demanded just as much attention as the conflicted titular lovers. Lord Capulet becomes a sleek and imposing businessman, his wife sports a dusty rose pantsuit or skimpy silk bathrobe, Juliet’s nurse is sassy and loving, and Mercutio is an absolute blast to watch and with whom to keep up.
Cast members shared their experiences and challenges embodying characters with such long histories. Students ranged from Romeo and Juliet fanatics for whom the roles were exciting, yet daunting to Shakespearean virgins, but the consensus on how to approach characters carrying so much baggage seemed to be personalization.
“Cole very early on said, ‘Always bring yourself to the work,’” said actress Eddy van Wyk, who played Juliet’s nurse. “The Nurse is traditionally played as this really old woman, kind of boring, kind of slow. [. . .] I’m a pretty sassy person, I have a lot of attitude, and I like to play. Where are those moments inside the text and what are my scene partners giving me in those moments that I can fill in with Eddy as the Nurse, not just this idea of the Nurse.”
Similarly, this production tapped into a body of academia suggesting Mercutio’s unrequited love for Romeo. Pascal Reiners, a firecracker in the role of Mercutio, brought his love of dancing alive in a wildly entertaining lip-sync and dance number to Dame Shirley Bassey’s “History Repeating.”
“A lot of it came down to to pleasure and what is Mercutio’s need, and his need is to have his best friend and the person he cares about, Romeo, at his side,” said Reiners. “To be seeking that love and for it not to be there, how do you mask that? How do you cover that with pleasure?”
“I think that when you don’t personalize and when you don’t make it your own, we end up with cardboard copies of people onstage,” said van Wyck.
And this production brimming with personality most certainly was not a cookie-cutter affair.