Vagabond Theatre shaking up Shakespeare

"This cast also features several sterling performances. Alysa King is the most passionate and emotional actor on stage so she is properly cast as Romeo, the one who falls in love hopelessly the moment she first sees Juliet."

By Greg Burliuk, Kingston Whig-Standard

The beauty of Shakespeare is that because the language is so powerful and beautiful, ambitious directors can do almost anything with it. It's so common to change locations and periods of the play that it's uncommon to stage it in traditional fashion.

Romeo and Juliet has proven itself particularly adaptable in this regard. There have been both old and young star-crossed lovers. And the play has been set in apartheid Africa, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, not to mention warring New York gangs in the Broadway musical West Side Story.

Kingston's newest theatre company, Vagabond Theatre, has gone one step further. Their production could have been called Romea and Juliet since it is the story of a romance between two young women.

It's an interesting idea. After all, this is a play about forbidden love, forbidden because the two are from families that are warring against each other. Why not extend the notion of taboo a little further by having it a same-sex romance.

If you're going to do that, however, you have to be fully committed. It's not enough just to change all the pronouns referring to Romeo from masculine to feminine. I think director Nathaniel Fried should have found more ways to show that this love is forbidden. Perhaps one of the characters who knows about it like The Nurse or the Friar could somehow show their disapproval.

Making Romeo a female means that there can be more teary grief shown when the body of Juliet is discovered. It also makes Romeo's frequent habit of getting into fatal fights a little strange, although none of her relatives or opponents seem to think so. Romeo's duel with Tybalt is handled well, because the latter is really beating up on Romeo, until she finds a dagger to kill him. In fact, the fight scenes are some of the best moments in the play.

The director has also chosen to set the play in preppie land as many of the men wear sweaters and ties and the women crisp skirts. He also isn't afraid to sex things up, as the character of Mercutio in particular seems to be always grabbing crotches or breasts.

Vagabond is a Queen's student group whose admirable mandate is to present Shakespearean plays. That's a pretty tall task considering making Shakespearean verse palatable to modern ears takes a lot of work. This group does a pretty good job of portraying the emotions behind the words, even if the occasional actor can't help themselves and sets off at a gallop that makes their speeches hard to fathom.

This cast also features several sterling performances. Alysa King is the most passionate and emotional actor on stage so she is properly cast as Romeo, the one who falls in love hopelessly the moment she first sees Juliet. As Juliet, Chance Kellner is less forceful or sure of her lines, but does a nice job of capturing the youth and innocence of Juliet.

More impressive however are some of the supporting cast members. Stealing the show as Mercutio is the company's coartistic director (along with Fried) Ryan LaPlante, who when we first meet him, is heading to a masquerade ball dressed as The Joker from Batman fame and channels the late Heath Ledger with the same kind of outrageousness. LaPlante's Mercutio is a libertine with a quick temper and is mesmerizing every time he's on stage.

I also enjoyed Erik Smith as the dictatorial Capulet, who drives his daughter Juliet into drastic action; and Brett Payette as Nurse, she of the sharp tongue and mischievious nature.

The stage is empty but for the odd chair or bed that is taken on and off the stage, plus a beautiful abstract backdrop.

On its website, Vagabond promises two more plays this season, the next one being Richard III. There's still work to be done, but the company is off to a rousing start.

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Romeo and Juliet

A play by William Shakespeare Director:Nathaniel Fried

Stage Manager:Rebecca Whaley A Vagabond Theatre Production now playing at the Wellington Street Theatre until Nov. 7 with performances from Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p. m. and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p. m. Cast

Romeo Alysa King Juliet Chance Kellner Mercutio Ryan LaPlante Nurse Brett Payette Tybalt Reece Chico Presley Capulet Erik Smith Rating:* * * out of five