By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
A quartet of Edmonton’s hottest young actors, all in their early 20s, did the introductions last week at the end of a rehearsal day at the Roxy. Their director was amused.
In the course of the tumultuous play-within-a-play that opens Thursday under the Kill Your Television banner, Daphne plays a part in violent brawls and erotically charged love scenes, moments of of self-discovery, of tragic revelation, of danger, emotional conflagration….
Daphne is a bolt of red cloth. And this star prop knows how to make an entrance on a bare stage: wrapped around a famous, forbidden text.
In Shakespeare’s R&J, by the New York actor/playwright/screenwriter Joe Calarco (American Horror Story), four boys at an ultra-strict Catholic boys’ prep school meet after hours to do something verboten: they read Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s great early tragedy of young love thwarted and triumphant. And what starts as an act of rebellion becomes an act of brave commitment as they gradually, tentatively, get swept into re-enacting it, across gender lines.
With the Kill Your Television production that features four rising stars of Edmonton theatre — Oscar Derkx, Luc Tellier, Braydon Dowler-Coltman and Corben Kushneryk — on one stage, the award-winning indie company, director Kevin Sutley, and producer Nathan Cuckow return to a play they did 16 years ago. Shakespeare’s R&J had started life in a tiny Lower East Side storefront in New York in 1997, then moved to a larger Off-Broadway theatre — and stayed for more than a year.
“It was only the second show we ever did,” says Sutley of the (Sterling Award-winning) production that followed KYT’s gritty debut, Eric Bogosian’s explosive examination of aimless youth, SubUrbia. “It was a great project for us! And we loved it….”
Perspectives on gender equality and sexuality haven’t remained static since 2002, of course. But repression and punitively enforced notions of gender and sexuality haven’t exactly vanished from the world, no matter how much we’d like to think otherwise. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you … Edmonton’s Catholic School Board, and its resistance to gay-straight alliances.
Does Shakespeare’s R&J still have high stakes? Does it still feel topical and dangerous in 2018? Along with Sutley, the actors, three of whom are also up-and-coming directors, pause after rehearsal to consider those questions, and the whole notion of progress.
“I’m only 24 and I lived it,” shrugs Luc Tellier, who plays Student 2 who plays Juliet, as well as Romeo’s pal Benvolio. “I went to a Catholic high school; I came out while I was there.” A terrible experience? “Yeah. And I had allies and support, mostly through theatre. So I was in the privileged category. But others don’t have those resources.”
“People look at Romeo and Juliet. And they ask ‘who does that?’ Fall in love, and commit suicide?” Tellier, an artistic associate with Blarney Productions (he directed last summer’s production of Legoland), sighs. “Yeah, well, actually they do.”
Derkx, who plays the student who plays Romeo, points out, smiling, that he grew up in “one of the most progressive parts of the world, the little hippie haven of Nelson, B.C.,” And his family is about as liberal and leftie as they come. “I’ve always felt free to love who I wanted to love…. But I still felt the confines of masculinity, I’d say…. And it would have been a scarier, much more difficult path if I’d been attracted to men. I know that.”
“The character I play, who plays Romeo, is the rebel of the group, the one most at odds with the system the students find themselves in,” says Derkx. “He feels he’s missing out on the world. And on himself.”
“Like Oscar I grew up in an environment that wasn’t polarizing or confining,” says Dowler-Coltman, who plays the student who plays the fiery Mercutio as well as Lady Capulet and Friar Laurence. He comes from a blue-blood Edmonton theatre family (his parents and siblings work in theatre and film).
“It wasn’t prescriptive about how to think and feel. But from the outside I did see a lot of people struggling and hurting. … For me, this play is such a powerful acknowledgement of the realization that love is love; you love who you love,” says Dowler-Coltman who created and directed the experimental dance/theatre piece To Be Moved for last summer’s Fringe as well as appearing in Blarney’s A Quiet Place with Tellier. Edmonton audiences saw him most recently in Edmonton Actors Theatre’s Burning Bluebeard.
“I’ve always joked about playing the Nurse,” grins Corben Kushneryk, whose burgeoning director’s career with the indie theatre Impossible Mongoose has led to such award-winning productions as The Fall of the House of Atreus and Prophecy (both by Jessy Ardern). Now he is. And along with the Nurse he plays as Student 4, he’s also playing Tybalt, the brash, aggressively macho member of the Capulet clan whose death lethally escalates the fatal feud with the Montagues. “The student I play is forced to dig in, and think about a woman’s experience, to unpack that,” says Kushneryk.
When you grow up “as a closeted football captain,” Kushneryk grins, opportunities to talk about love, much less express it, gay or straight, aren’t exactly thick upon the ground.
Interestingly, the students in the play are drawn to a 400-year-old classic love story set in a culture of hostilities — and not the sex and violence of a contemporary piece. “I feel like characters in contemporary writing hold back; there’s more subtext, more secrets,” Derkx muses. “In Shakespeare they’re fully open, fully honest. They’re talking how they’re feeling….”
Kushneryk says, with a smile, “Somehow, mysteriously, I got through high school and five years of conservatory acting training. And I’ve never studied this play! I thought I knew it. But it’s so much richer than I thought….”
The students’ attraction to Romeo and Juliet starts as a game: “there’s so much bawdy innuendo,” says Sutley, “so much testosterone….” And gradually, they’re drawn into the vortex where other discoveries get made.
“I firmly believe,” says Tellier, “that the entry point is so accessible, so safe, that the lessons about love, the turmoil, sneak up on them and wrap all around them — without giving them time to think about it!” And hey, Daphne is there to support that notion in every way.
Play-acting turns into something else more compelling. “I don’t feel I’m playing a woman. I feel I’m playing a lover,” Tellier says. “In its bones, this is a story about love, not gender. So much fun. And so satisfying!”
Roxy Performance Series
Theatre: Kill Your Television
Directed by: Kevin Sutley
Starring: Oscar Derkx, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Corben Kushneryk, Luc Tellier
Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through Jan. 28
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca