Romeo and Juliet

Vue Weekly – April 12, 2001
Paul Matwychuk

‘Hughes and Marler shine as star-crossed lovers Romeo & Juliet’

The new production of Romeo and Juliet at the Citadel opens with a very long slow-motion street brawl between members of Verona’s warring Montague and Capulet families. After about three minutes of shirtless swordplay, the action suddenly shifts into normal speed, Michael Becker’s Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque score cuts out and the clank of the swords and grunts of the combatants ring out loud and clear.

It took a bit longer for this play to kick into high gear from me. For one thing, I’m always just naturally impatient for these two young lovers to hurry up and get together and start causing trouble. But there are also a couple of odd (and rather distracting) character touches in the first couple of acts, like the steamy kiss Lady Capulet plants on her nephew Tybalt or the way Mercutio seems to have a psychotic episode near the end of his Queen Mab speech. These colourful episodes certainly get your attention, although they ultimately seem a little pointless in the larger context of the play.

But once the beautifully stages and performed balcony scene between Tara Hughes’s Juliet and Brian Marler’s Romeo begins, the show never look back. I’ve rarely seen the action in Romeo and Juliet make so much emotional sense as it does here: by the end of the play, you’re ready to believe not only that their desire to be together is a matter of life and death – but that between those town options, the desperate lovers may, in fact, have chosen correctly.

Juliet is a perfect role for Hughes, who, in Transit of Venus and her stellar supporting turn earlier this season in To Kill a Mockingbird, has demonstrated a remarkable gift for playing emotionally turbulent young women at the mercy of forces larger and more powerful than themselves. Hughes has no problem keeping Juliet’s emotions very close to the surface and it would be easy to mistakenly call her performance uncontrolled if it weren’t for the intelligence and precision with which she navigates the Shakespearean dialogue – in the soliloquy she delivers after hearing about Tybalt’s death and the one just before she drinks the potion that will give her the appearance of having died, every shift in Juliet’s thoughts is clear and focused. Maybe it’s her unusual emotional openness that makes Hughes so effective at these types of roles – she makes her characters’ feelings so immediate that you can’t help but place a tremendous emotional stake in her character’s happiness, and it seems like an awful injustice when that happiness is thwarted.

Marler is less conventionally handsome than the typical Romeo type; his mouth has a downward tilt to it that make shim look a little morose even when he’s at his most lovestruck. His performance is less immediately winning than Hughes’s, but the underlying seriousness he gives Romeo – the sense both that he’s suddenly realized what a powerful feeling true love can be, and that he’s placing his own life and that of his lover in mortal danger simply by acting on those feelings – acquires a surprising amount of force by the time the final act rolls around. One of the most effective scenes in the production takes places when Romeo hides out at Friar Laurence’s retreat after killing Tybalt and thrashes around on the floor, unable to deal with what he has done. Marler find the perfect middle ground between adolescent acting-out and genuine despair, and Ashley Wright – who gives a terrific performance, by the way – is equally strong in the speech where Laurence forcefully demands that Romeo pull himself together.

Director Tom Wood has orchestrated an unusually large gallery of fine supporting performances: besides Wright, Maralyn Ryan is delightful as Juliet’s chatterbox of a Nurse, Jordan Pettle actually makes Mercutio’s rather recondite Elizabethan wordplay seem witty all over again and Paul Cowling makes an imposing Lord Capulet – in one of the play’s most terrifying moments, he even yanks the petite Hughes off the ground with one arm. (I also appreciated the fact, after seeing so many plays full of phony stage violence, that when Cowling slaps Jan Alexandra Smith’s Lady Capulet across the face, Wood has her show up in the following scene with a nasty purplish bruise on her cheek.)

There are some problems with the ending: Romeo and Juliet’s deaths are a little unsatisfying (if that’s the word to use), and the closing tableau, in which all the surviving character sob loudly over the lovers’ bodies as the light go down, is a bit heavy-handed. Wood doesn’t need to have the actors cry – he’s staged this classic tearjerker so effectively that the audience will probably be able to supply plenty of tears on its own.