The first half of the Studio 58 production of Romeo + Juliet is a dazzling affair, proving that Shakespeare can indeed be effectively moved in time and place. By its second half though, it settles into a more traditional telling of the story of the two star-crossed lovers that is something akin to coming down off a high.
The Bard’s plays saw all manner of tinkering this summer in Vancouver, with few living up to their full potential in allowing concept to overtake good storytelling. Thankfully, the abridged version Romeo and Juliet currently on stage at Langara College’s theatre school, loses absolutely nothing of its story by placing it inside Andy Warhol’s The Factory in 1965. In fact, act one of director Anita Rochon’s vision was so groovy, that as the lights came down on the first half there was a tiny disappointment when the cast hadn’t invited us all onstage to help celebrate the couple’s secret marriage.
Taking its inspiration from Warhol’s original Silver Factory (there were three New York City locations over its twenty year history), the intimate Studio 58 theatre is appropriately covered in tin foil by set designer Pam Johnson, and as we enter to take our seats, one of Warhol’s infamous parties is underway. It seems an entirely appropriate setting for a ball and the meeting of the two lovers, with Warhol himself setting the stage, easing tensions, and literally helping to put a spotlight on the action.
As Romeo and Juliet first lay eyes on each other at the ball, Rochon creates a beautiful spectacle using traveling spots that pinpoints them among the crowd. As “Baby Light My Fire” plays and Warhol watches from a distance, you can feel the electricity between the two. It is fresh, it is exciting, and it is ultimately believable. The word YOWZA is scribbled across the page of my notebook.
Helping to sell that initial moment, and giving us one of the most honest and clear balcony scenes of any production of Romeo and Juliet, are Camille Legg and Adelleh Furseth as the two lovers. And even as director Rochon has recast the roles as a same-sex couple with a connection to the burgeoning sexual revolution of the time, Legg and Furseth’s performances help prove that love is love; the fact they are two women disappears completely from the equation. Interestingly enough though, this gender-bend is both a blessing and a curse, as while the two actors fully inhabit their characters, the promised tension from the same-sex relationship among the families never truly materializes.
And so it goes through a first act that keeps you engaged and waiting for the next surprise inside this well-worn story. Act two though, can’t compete.
While the production remains solid in the second half, it is somewhat of a letdown as Rochon moves us into a more traditional telling of the story. Moving beyond The Factory in act two, it plays out like many Romeo and Juliet‘s before it, although this one just happens to be punctuated by a 1960’s soundtrack from Nancy Tam that could easily be sold in the lobby after the show.
Beyond Legg and Furseth there are some other nice performances including Samantha Pawliuk who gives Nance just enough quirkiness to still make her believable and, Conor Stinson-o’Gorman is electric each time he steps onto the stage as Mercutio. Nathan Kay captures the idiosyncrasies of Warhol with an alarming realism.
Designer Jessica Bayntun gives us some whimsical costumes with little hits of Warhol’s pop-culture art, fight director David Bloom gives us one of the best fight sequences you’ll see on any stage and Jonathan Ryder’s lighting design helps keep focus within a show that is at times a cacophony of shiny objects.
While a solid production, as I sat contemplating what had just transpired as the final curtain fell, I imagined how much more Rochon could have done in act two if she had just taken another hit. I longed for a deathly rendition of “So Happy Together” from the chorus that encircles the lovers as they take their own lives, and a Romeo who kills himself from an overdose inside The Factory.
Act one is a groovy trip. Act two plays out as if Rochon’s LSD was starting to wear off just as we were getting to the good stuff.
Romeo + Juliet by William Shakespeare. Directed by Anita Rochon. A Studio 58 production in association with The Chop Theatre. On stage at Langara College’s Studio 58 (100 West 49 Ave, Vancouver) until October 18. Visit https://studio58.ca for tickets and information.