Stage Door Review

Romeo and Juliet

Thursday, July 16, 2020

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by William Shakespeare, staged by Parkade Plays

The Bruce Hotel Parkade, 89 Parkview Drive, Stratford

July 9-August 30, 2020

Mercutio: “Give me a case to put my visage in” (Act 1, Scene 4)

The Stratford Festival has had to cancel its 2020 season because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but one can still see a play by Shakespeare in Stratford. The plucky troupe Sidewalk Scenes, under the nom de scène Parkade Plays is currently presenting a 75-minute version of Romeo and Juliet in the parkade of The Bruce Hotel. The production may be short in running time, but it is long in ideas. Parkade Plays has has so well edited down Shakespeare’s play and has so well understood how the current pandemic gives it added resonance that the production leaves you with more insight into the play than have the last several full-length productions of it at the Stratford Festival.

Sidewalk Scenes is made up of four actors who were to have appeared in Undiscovered Shakespeare by Rebecca Northan that was to have opened on July 12. When the cast learned the 2020 season was cancelled it poured its energy into Sidewalk Scenes which performs songs, skits and improv in streets and driveways for patrons to watch from their porches. As Parkade Plays, the troupe – Northan, Ijeoma Emesowum, Bruce Horak and Kevin Kruchkywich – the troupe proves it is adept at serious drama as well as comedy.

For the ingenious set-up for this Romeo and Juliet in a time of physical distancing, a maximum of ten cars is allowed to park in the covered parkade of The Bruce Hotel. The  cars are directed to park four on each side and one at each end thus creating a long rectangular playing area. The audience remains in the shade of the parkade roof in their distanced vehicles and watches the play with engines off and windows rolled down.

Parkade Plays has relocated the action of the play to the present in Stratford, Ontario. Initially, we think the troupe will be presenting a parody of Shakespeare. The “two houses” of Verona become two rival coffeehouses in Stratford – Revel and Edison’s – as per the design of the T-shirts the players wear. The Capulet’s Servant cannot read the invitation list he has been given not because he is illiterate, as in the original, but because the list is written in cursive. The invitees are a list of real Stratfordites including the present mayor and some Stratford Festival Board members. The Prince Escalus, played by Northan, becomes simply a Stratford police officer.

Nevertheless, it quickly transpires after what is Act 1, Scene 2, in Shakespeare’s original, that the production’s aim is not parodic at all. While relocating the play in small town Stratford may seem to trivialize the subject matter, the inescapable presence of the Covid-19 pandemic magnifies it.

Setting the action during the current pandemic emphasizes the play’s atmosphere of ever-present death. The troupe has the characters wear masks and observe physical distancing. Those characters who do violate physical distancing do so for purposes of affection or murder, thus making love and death flip sides of the same coin and underscoring more than in any other production I’ve seen, how clearly Shakespeare parallels these two aspects of life. The pandemic elevates the story of Romeo and Juliet out of its usual characterization as a tale of impulsive, adolescent love. Rather, it reveals Romeo and Juliet as caught up in the twin drives Freud identifies for all humankind of eros and thanatos.

How the characters treat masks and distance become measures of their nature. That Tybalt never wears a mask is a sign of his recklessness and distain for rules. That Lady Capulet enforces physical distancing within her own household and wears both a mask and a face shield indoors with her family becomes a sign of her overprotectiveness of herself and her reputation even more than of Juliet. As a side benefit the presence of unknown masked men at the Capulet’s physically distanced ball does not become unusual but natural.

Knowing that physical distancing between strangers is a rule, violation of it becomes even more dramatic. This fact makes the first meeting of Romeo (Kevin Kruchkywich) and Juliet (Ijeoma Emesowum) the most sensuous I have ever seen. Romeo’s “If I profane with my unworthiest hand thy holy shrine” takes on a secondary meaning when that touch of love could also be deadly. Thus the background of disease underscores the love-death of the young couple from the very beginning. In this production the lovers never kiss, but their touching palm to palm is so replete with meaning they don’t have to.

The equation of proximity to death is even more obvious when the young men of the play fight, Tybalt slaying Mercutio, and Romeo Tybalt.

One ingenious directorial trait, born of the necessity of having only four actors perform the play but moving nonetheless, is that when a character dies the others actors strip off the outer garment of that character. The garment thus becomes an image of the body after the soul has flown. The warring families are distinguished by colours – yellow for the Montagues, red for the Capulets – so that Juliet can cherish and kiss the yellow sash of the dead Romeo before she commits suicide.

One might think that it is impossible to perform this play with a complement of only four, but the tight ensemble playing of the troupe and their abilities to switch from role to role so deftly proves that it is possible. The trebling or quadrupling of roles also heightens the the theatricality of the production without detracting from its impact.

Ijeoma Emesowum plays Juliet as a modern young woman, feisty and rebellious, easily capable of breaking social laws in marrying Romeo as breaking religious laws in committing suicide. Emesowum also a vital Mercutio and delivers his Queen Mab speech with an air of whimsy and melancholy.

Kevin Kruchkywich is a fine, sensitive Romeo, perhaps not as bold as Emesowum’s Juliet, but more pensive. He also plays a brittle Lady Capulet, here given many of her husband’s lines, that makes the woman a self-serving creature, more concerned with her reputation than with Juliet’s happiness.

Rebecca Northan is, as one might expect, a hoot as Juliet’s Nurse and makes the scene where the Nurse delays so long in telling Juliet Romeo’s message a highpoint of the play, especially funny in that in the 35º of the opening performance Northan’s Nurse made much comic use of water spray to keep cool. Northan is also a vicious Tybalt and a self-satisfied Paris.

Bruce Horak shows us the kindly, concerned person Friar Laurence is whose fear grows as he sees his complex plans for a happy ending go awry. For once when Laurence hears that the plague in Mantua had prevent his letter to Romeo from being delivered, this plot point does not feel contrived as is so often does. After all, in this production the plague is everywhere. Horak is also a lively Benvolio.

To cut the play down to only 75 minutes means that numerous lines, scenes and supporting characters go missing. It is too bad to lose the more philosophical lines of the play such as Romeo’s realization after killing Tybalt “O, I am fortune's fool!” or Friar Laurence’s explanation of the “opposed kings” in humankind of “grace and rude will”. Yet, almost all the bawdy taunting of Verona’s young men is cut, which is just as well since directors always resort to rude gestures to make the now-arcane references understandable. Nevertheless, the cutting is sensitively done and the plot and imagery are clear and enhanced by the new setting.

The price for one vehicle with two people is $110 + HST*, but that includes sandwiches from The Bruce restaurant’s menu, a litre of bottled water and both sweet and savoury snacks. The parkade is covered which causes about a 5º lowering of the outside temperature which makes watching the play with windows down and engine off a comfortable experience.

In the end you do not feel that you’ve seen a pale facsimile of a Shakespearean play, but an ingenious, thoughtful production with  more insight than is often found in fully fledged productions. Sets, costumes and projections often obscure rather than enlighten too many Shakespearean productions. Parkade Plays’s minimalist production gets to the very crux of Shakespeare’s play and makes it feel vital and eerily relevant.

For tickets, visit www.thebruce.ca.

*Note: The run from August 25 to 30 will dispense with vehicles and the masked audience will sit in the parkade in physically distanced chairs. Tickets will be $30 per person with a dinner/show option of $80 per person. 

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Ijeoma Emesowum, Bruce Horak, Rebecca Northan and Kevin Kruchkywich; Bruce Horak, Kevin Kruchkywich, Ijeoma Emesowum and Rebecca Northan. © 2020  Tristan Yurry.