Andrew Chown, Scott Bellis & Hailey Gillis in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by David Blue.
Andrew Chown, Scott Bellis & Hailey Gillis in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by David Blue.

After largely stripping away the anachronisms, the comedy, and breaking down the fourth wall that permeated the first half of Kim Colliers’ Romeo and Juliet, its second act is as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking.

As one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays, with a story that even non-Bard buffs are familiar with, the director has two options. You either find new ways in which to present the play, or find actors that are able to breathe fresh life into these well-known characters.  Under Kim Collier’s direction, the Romeo and Juliet that opens this year’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, is a little bit of the first, and a whole lot of the second.

Perhaps it is in knowing what is to take place in the second half that makes everything else pale in comparison.  Setting the stage for this tragic love story, act one can be a bit underwhelming. Under Collier’s direction it also suffers from the addition of too many anachronistic elements such as the balloons Juliet carries when we first meet her, Friar Laurence’s headphones, and what appears to be a rave of sorts that stands in for the Capulet ball. These additions are as distracting as when the cast breaks down the fourth wall, or the comedy becomes too broad or sexual. The results is that we are momentarily pulled from the story in realizing something doesn’t quite fit, and it can take time to be pulled back in. Not to say the first half lacks its own wonderful moments – the two lover’s first meeting, the balcony scene, the secret wedding – and Collier and her cast nail each one, but the beauty of this tragic love story is fleetingly obscured.

Act two is a study in contrasts. Here Collier strips away the bulk of the anachronisms, keeps the comedy mercifully brief, and the fourth wall is back solidly, if not fully, in place. The result is a far superior second half that allows us to fully focus on story and performance, including two dazzling performances from Andrew Chown and Hailey Gillis as the star-crossed lovers.

Under Collier’s direction, Chown and Gillis are almost childlike in their performances, acknowledging that the two lovers are barely in their teens, with Juliet a mere fourteen years old and Romeo only a couple years older. Childlike doesn’t mean childish though, as while the two look at the world (and their burgeoning romance) through younger eyes with often unconstrained excitement, there is a foundation built around being forced to grow up too fast. Their connection is palpable, and as the two consummate their marriage before Romeo is banished for killing Tybalt, it is a beautifully realized scene of innocence and love. Of course, the fate of Romeo and Juliet is no surprise, but the truth Chown and Gillis find in their deaths is nonetheless heartbreaking.

Among the rest of the cast Dawn Petten makes for a stoic and articulate Lady Capulet, and even as Jennifer Lines is a tad shrill at times as Juliet’s Nurse, there is a wonderful connection between her and her charge. Scott Bellis plays Friar Laurence with wisdom and heart. As Mercutio and Benvolio, Andrew McNee and Ben Elliott are most successful in their more serious moments; McNee gives one of the best death scenes of the evening. Antony Lipovetsky is filled with anger as Tybalt, but there is little shading.

Nancy Bryant embraces Collier’s anachronistic vision with her costumes. The decision to forgo distinct differences between the Capulets and Montagues helps emphasize that the two houses are not as different as they might think.

Pam Johnson’s monolithic moveable set pieces, designed no doubt to represent the two households, glide effortlessly across the stage. Creating constantly changing scene scapes, they become the perfect vehicles for the balcony and courtyard scenes, effectively looming over Romeo and Juliet.

While intermission was filled with a tepid appreciation, this Romeo and Juliet’s second act exploded with its passionate story. It is most definitely worth the wait.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Directed by Kim Collier. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production. On stage at the BMO Mainstage (Vanier Park, Vancouver) in repertory with The Merry Wives of Windsor until September 23. Visit http://bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.