Romeo and Juliet presents a particular challenge for any theatre company: how do you bring life to a play that's been read, if not seen, by most of your audience, dissected endlessly and produced over and over?
Shakespeare in the Ruins' latest production of the Bard's famous tragedy of star-struck lovers from feuding families opts to play it pretty safe. It's a faithful and solid production — but one that's sometimes missing a certain spark of passion.
Much of the success of any production of this play rests on credible leads, but that too presents a conundrum — finding actors who can convey the impetuousness of young love, yet have the maturity to make those young lovers credible characters.
Kristian Jordan and Heather Russell are largely successful in that. Jordan does a believable shift from moody to moony, as Romeo's infatuation with the unseen Rosaline turns into genuine passion for Juliet. His performance is energetic and youthful.
Russell gives a fine performance as Juliet, but one that's perhaps a bit more uneven. She delivers some heartbreaking moments — her reaction to learning of the banishment of Romeo, whom she's just secretly married, tugs at the heartstrings. In some other scenes, though, she seems a bit too restrained for a character who's supposed to be a teenager in the throes of love.
Russell and Jordan are backed by a strong supporting cast. Carson Nattrass is a standout as the well-intentioned Friar Lawrence, capturing the holy man's desire to do good along with his exasperation with the young lovers. As Juliet's nurse, Laura Olafson brings a vibrant charm to a character who is sometimes Juliet's confidant, later her foil as she sides with Juliet's mother (Tracey Nepinak in an excellent turn as Lady Capulet).
Alicia Johnston does a nicely dramatic take on Romeo's histrionic friend Mercutio, while Simon Bracken gives a polished performance as the more sensible Benvolio.
For all that, though, there's a certain restraint in director Heidi Malazdrewich's production. It's well-paced, finds plenty of humorous beats in the earlier acts (as Paris, Eric Blais' ukulele ode to Juliet is a comic showstopper) and is a perfectly likable take on the play.
But it's one that sometimes doesn't sing with all the joy and sorrow it might. Perhaps because they're so familiar, some scenes — like the famous balcony scene — while perfectly competently staged and performed just don't quite ring with genuine, unbridled passion. The ultimate fate of our characters feels more like a great shame than a great tragedy.
The modern-dress production plays it pretty safe stylistically, too — Angela Vaags' costumes suggest the 1950s in places, but not enough to either distract or significantly enhance.
The production makes good use of the ruins and surrounding space at the Trappist monastery park. As usual, audience members follow the cast from location to location, promenade-style, throughout the 150-minute (with intermission) show. The flow of the production, though, is broken — especially in the earlier acts — by a few too many moves.
In the end, it's a perfectly good production of Romeo and Juliet that's easy to like — though maybe not as easy to fall hopelessly, swooningly in love with.
Shakespeare in the Ruins' production of Romeo and Juliet runs at the Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park until June 24.