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vancouverplays review


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— Production photo

By William Shakespeare
Mnemonic Theatre
Sunset Beach
Aug. 20-31
Free (by donation)

Billed as “A Tale of Star-Crossed Lesbians,” Mnemonic Theatre's Romeo and Juliet is the loosiest goosiest Shakespeare seen here in many a summer.  A pared-down script, a beautiful spot at Sunset Beach, free admission and some audacious gender-switching add up to a pleasant evening of tragic love that ought to be more fun than it is.

Director Jordan Dibe has said that casting both Romeo and Mercutio as women was all about giving "the best actors the parts they deserved, regardless of gender." The same press release also points out that Dibe and Artistic Producer Caleb McMullen are gay men active in Vancouver's queer community. So you might expect gender politics to play out in a more challenging way than it does in this production.

Ms. Romeo (Ghazal Azarbad), dark and slightly butch in rolled-up jeans and a vest, woos slim, blonde Juliet (Emma Johnson), lovely in costumer Christopher David Gauthier's femmy white see-through dress. Mercutio (Natasha Alexander) struts and growls and does a lot of crotch-grabbing.

But seeing the women sword-fighting and wrestling turns out to pack a heavier punch than watching them same-sex kiss and snuggle. Romeo and Juliet's scenes together are chastely sweet and innocent. For their wedding night they crawl under a sheet and never move. Not even the Russians would have much trouble with these lesbian lovebirds.

McMullen (Tybalt), Dibe (Balthasar), Patrick Mercado (Benvolio) and Mack Gordon (Paris), along with Alexander's Mercutio, provide the macho goofing around that leads to the first bloody deaths. Even though the swords are simple sticks, it's still cool to see Azarbad and Alexander fighting on equal terms with the boys, especially when the fights get down and dirty WWE-style.

Except for Gordon's Paris, all these characters act like kids, around Juliet's age. And Dibe has cut nearly all the adults in the play. Juliet's Nurse, Shakespeare's voice of mature sexual appetite, is played by a young actress (Tracy Schut) in short shorts and a bikini top. Holding the fort for us oldsters, Ian Harrison's big bearded Friar looks and sounds like he should be playing golf in Scotland. The younger actors could learn a few things from Harrison regarding the importance of stillness, the strength of standing steadily in one place rather than randomly drifting around the acting space.

In addition to tightening the blocking, director Dibe needs to make the script alterations more consistent so that Romeo is never called sir, lord or man, as she sometimes still is.

Dibe might also cut the script more radically and lose the intermission. Set pieces like Mercutio's Queen Mab speech and the badinage between Romeo and the boys go on too long and are hard to understand with all the ambient noise in that large outdoor space. Juliet's longer speeches also feel rushed. Further judicious cutting might allow them to play--and us to hear--Shakespeare's gorgeous poetry that now tends to get lost. Gathering the audience more closely around the playing area would also help create a more intimate feeling and reduce the need for the actors to shout.

Shizuka Kai's minimalist design is a large blanket laid down on the grass in front of a makeshift wooden platform that serves as Juliet's balcony and tomb. The actors sit on either side of the blanket and watch the action when they're not in a scene. The audience also sits on the ground (BYO blanket or towel) on a low hillside with the beach, False Creek and Burrard Bridge in the background.

It gets cold as the sun sets, so bring a wrap. And note the early (7 pm) start time.

Jerry Wasserman















Jerry Wasserman