What light through yonder window breaks? Shakespeare’s R & J is back, a 12thnight review

Oscar Derkx and Luc Tellier in Shakespeare’s R&J, Kill Your Television Theatre. Photo by Lucas Boutilier

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Directors with concept envy have always been hot to get their mitts on Romeo and Juliet. And you can see why. The defiance, the crazy courage, the valiance of hot-blooded young lovers up against generational hostilities in a fractious world have invited every kind of contemporary context: New York street gangs, Irish Catholic vs. Protestant, Bosnian vs. Serb, Canuck anglophone vs. francophone, Muslim vs. Christian, the Middle East, the American South….

In Shakespeare’s play there’s a high price tag on a first kiss across the Montague/Capulet divide in fair Verona, the more visceral the setting, the more striking.  

Shakespeare’s R&J, a 1997 adaptation/ condensation by the New York actor/screenwriter Joe Calarco, offers a different proposition: that first kiss happens across the frontier of sexual orthodoxy.

Sixteen years ago a fiery new indie theatre called Kill Your Television tackled this love story for four young adolescent guys rebelling against the rigidity of a strict Catholic boys school. And they revisit it in a vivid new Kevin Sutley production in the Roxy Performance Series, starring four of Edmonton’s most exciting young actors and not to be missed.

The result is a compelling male version of Romeo and Juliet — one that demonstrates, among other things, that committed actors can’t be contained by a concept. And these four pretty much explode out of it, and take hold of Shakespeare’s great story of love and death and sexual awakening — Calarco be gone.   

The “actors” startle, and sometimes appall, each other, and themselves,  with their discoveries. But the framework — oppressed schoolboy amateurs entering a hot-blooded Shakespearean vortex of fear and ecstacy and rising to the occasion— seems less necessary this time out. Sutley’s revival, which happens under a projected scarlet crucifix on a vertical banner (designer: April Viczko), seems to take into account that two young Catholic students kissing as they play a couple in a love story is less inflammatory in 2018 than it was a couple of decades ago.

What the Catholic boys who play the characters of Romeo and Juliet are up against in Shakespeare’s R&J is … themselves: their own repressed selves, across the prescribed gender divide. They enter at the outset in their school uniforms, white shirts and ties, marching in military formation, clutching notebooks which they they snap open and close like ultimatums. “Forgive me father for I have sinned.” Buzzers go. Prayers get chanted. A list of of “thou shalt not’s” gets repeated. The students know a lot more about conjugating the Latin verb “to love” than they do about the experience of love. 

(Front) Oscar Derkx and Luc Tellier, (back) Corben Kushneryk and Braydon Dowler-Coltman. Photo by Lucas Boutilier

The four meet after hours to gratify an adolescent rebellious streak by passing around a secret copy of Romeo and Juliet, and play-acting all the parts. And gradually, what starts as prankish, tentative, embarrassed horseplay that ferrets out all Shakespeare’s dirty jokes (and savours the fighting) is subverted by the sheer seductive power of the 400-plus- year-old play.

Matthew Skopyk’s score abandons the solemn church organ idiom (which seems a little heavy-handed in truth), and goes dramatic, in all kinds of tense, escalating ways.

What happens is an artful bare-stage Shakespeare production: four boxes, banners, and the bolt of red cloth that the “actors” use like the powerhouse young theatre pros they actually are (as weapons, vials of poison, bed sheets, cloaks). No “student” production, this. Or maybe it’s a Catholic school with a theatre department.

The image of authority as a multi-headed creature, an installation wrapped in red cloth, is very inventive — as are the fights, which take tug-of-war in unexpected and thrilling directions. The way the fabric is yanked out of sight to convey the sense of bloodletting and fatal wounds is smart and beautifully executed. 

(From top) Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Corben Kushneryk, Luc Teller, Oscar Derkx. Photo by Lucas Boutilier.

As Romeo and Juliet, Oscar Derkx and Luc Tellier are an intense, heartbreaking couple, with chemistry. The pulse of the ecstatic verse is something they both command, in different ways, Derkx as a passionate kind of propulsive (and compulsive) rhythm and Tellier in a more conversational way. When Romeo says “the time and my intent are savage wild,” you believe it.

Braydon-Dowler Coltman’s Mercurio is so striking — incisively witty and ironic, as dexterous with the verse as he is with the physicality of the role — you long to see him at work in a production of Romeo and Juliet without Calarco trimmings. His Lady Capulet, a steely hysteric if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, channels Mercutio in a fascinating way. And you can feel the anxiety of his Friar Laurence as he thinks, fast, on his feet. As the Nurse Corben Kushneryk turns Student 4’s initial mockery of the character into a compelling character.

And when the actors playing student actors are observers, watching each other as the script advises, alert acting doesn’t stop in Sutley’s well-staged production.

The framework may seem flimsier in 2018. But when the doom-laden love story ignites, Shakespeare’s forever-young play is born again.


Shakespeare’s R&J

Roxy Performance Series

Theatre: Kill Your Television

Directed by: Kevin Sutley

Starring: Oscar Derkx, Luc Tellier, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Corben Kushneryk

Where: Theatre at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through Jan. 28

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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