Artistic director Steven Schipper's vision for Shakespeare's classic tragedy of star-crossed lovers is inspired. He keeps Shakespeare's text, but turns Verona into a district of present-day Jerusalem, and the warring Capulet and Montague families into Muslims and Jews. It's a timely and relevant twist on the familiar tale, and full of potential - on which the production doesn't quite capitalize.
Marc Bendavid as Romeo and Pam Patel as Juliet in MTC's Romeo and Juliet (Bruce Monk)
The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's production of Romeo and Juliet bears one unfortunate resemblance to the Middle East peace process - for every step it takes forward, it seems to take two back.
Perhaps the biggest problem here is that Schipper's vision simply isn't pushed far enough. Michael Gianfrancesco's gorgeous set provides a stark backdrop that never lets us entirely forget the troubled setting of the production, and the modern dress reminds us that some of the characters are Jews, some Muslims, some Christians. But beyond that, there's little to ground this Romeo and Juliet in the Middle East conflict - and little commentary on that tragedy beyond the fact that it is indeed a tragedy.
There are flashes of how this could work - a blindfolded duel between Jewish Mercutio and Muslim Tybalt (expertly choreographed by Jacqueline Loewen) literally turns their anger into blind hatred. And its aftermath - the image of Tybalt lying dead in a Jerusalem street - is all the more shocking because it's so reminiscent of what we too often see on the news. But there are too few of these moments in a production that plays it too safe.
Romeo and Juliet is a mixed bag in other regards as well. The performances in the cast of nearly two dozen (which is laudably multi-ethnic) range from terrific (Gareth Potter's fabulously bawdy and mercurial Mercutio deservedly drew the most applause on opening night) to downright stiff.
But one of the greatest challenges any production of Romeo and Juliet faces is in casting its leads, and the results are uneven there as well. Marc Bendavid is solid as Romeo - appropriately moony in the play's opening scenes, credibly grief-stricken later. But he's unable to generate any believable heat with Pam Patel's Juliet. Her performance shows great promise in such a young actor, but in the end, doesn't dig deep enough to be fully convincing, and doesn't win the audience over the way she needs to.
There have been greater tales of woe than this version of Juliet and her Romeo. But there is great frustration here in that an intriguing concept doesn't ultimately live up to its promise.
Images in article (from top): RJ Parrish as Tybalt, Ari Weinberg as Benvolio and Gareth Potter as Mercutio.(Bruce Monk), Marc Bendavid as Romeo, Andrea Davis as Nurse and Gareth Potter as Mercutio. (Bruce Monk)
Joff Schmidt, CBC theatre reviewer (CBC)