Romeo and Juliet a solid offering by plucky Shakespeare fest

A spirited production of Romeo and Juliet at Camosun College is cause for celebration in more ways than one.

The play is staged by the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival, now in its 25th season. Over that long history, GVSF has had its share of exhilarating ups (lineups to see shows at an Inner Harbour tent) and less-than-thrilling downs (mediocre shows, sparse crowds).

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Yet there’s been a change in recent seasons. The festival, while essentially a grassroots effort, is more focused and professional. Based on a worthwhile Romeo and Juliet and other indicators, this celebration of the Bard appears to be finally gelling in a rather exciting way.

Wednesday’s performance of Romeo and Juliet drew an enthused audience of 100. The other GVSF offering, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has drawn crowds double that size. Clearly, Victoria is embracing this plucky little outdoor festival.

Why? It’s partly because the marketing efforts have improved; there’s more emphasis on selling advance tickets. Of course, the larger audiences are also a reflection of the rising quality of the productions.

Benefiting from Christopher Weddell’s sharp, lively direction, Romeo and Juliet, is one of the better GVSF shows I’ve seen in recent years. Weddell is a founding member of Bard on the Beach who’s acted his share of Shakespeare. He clearly knows what he’s doing.

His is a modern take on Romeo and Juliet, tipping its hats to the Occupy movement.

The Capulets are the affluent garden-party one-per-centers; the Montagues are black-clad outsiders. Romeo sports a black leather jacket. His rival, Paris, wears a white sports-coat.

There’s a certain irreverent joie de vivre afoot that’s both charming and entertaining. It’s very physical: an exuberant Romeo (Kiaran McMillan) hides among the audience; Mercutio (Trevor Hinton) jumps on Romeo’s back and does handstands. And third amigo Benvolio (Corin Wrigley) swaggers like a swashbuckling pirate.

Fight scenes are especially well handled. The dagger stand-off between Tybalt (a sneering Simon Paterson) and Mercutio seemed genuinely dangerous. Ditto for Romeo’s dispatching of Tybalt, a gruesome neck slash that made my companion recoil.

Especially memorable was the courtly, faintly menacing dance for the masked ensemble that illustrated the tension between the opposing tribes.

Brash and bawdy humour abounds. When Romeo reads out the guest list for the Capulet’s banquet, an illiterate minion (well played by Alex Judd) does a comic impression of each invitee. Shakespeare’s rude jokes — and there’s a surprising number — are emphasized with pelvic thrusts and hand gestures.

Music and instrumental sound effects are used intelligently and imaginatively. Far from being gratuitous, the recorded soundtrack deftly accentuates the drama.

McMillan radiated a ruddy, youthful charisma as Romeo. This was a confident, strong performance from a promising actor. Sarah Jane Pelzer (she and Hinton are the professional ringers in the show) is a sweet, earnest Juliet dressed in virginal white. She’s not quite the ethereal angel Romeo imagines, however — Pelzer’s Juliet isn’t above caterwauling at her nurse (the amusingly peppery Susie Mullen) like a spoiled teen.

To the modern theatregoer, the instant deep love between Romeo and Juliet may seem a stretch (after a minute or two, Juliet refers to Romeo as her “husband”). Yet McMillan and Pelzer manage to convince us this could happen, capturing the match-flame alchemy of teenage love.

The set is essentially a wooden platform with metal bed frame and an ugly green tarp. When it gets dark (bring a sweater; it gets chilly) a few simple lights illuminate the proceedings.

Yet it doesn’t matter that the production values are almost non-existent. The cast is strong (sadly, space doesn’t permit naming all the notables). And most speak with clarity and projection, a simple thing, but absolutely essential in an outdoor setting.

What: Romeo and Juliet

Where: Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival

Where: Camosun College grounds (Lansdowne campus)

Rating: four (out of five)

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