When I asked my best friend if she wanted to have a BFF date on Thursday, I pictured a delicate, girly-girl evening: sushi, gossip on the subway, and Romeo and Juliet at Hart House. You can imagine my shock when the play kicked off with Friar Lawrence in a leather jacket, rumbling Italian hip-hop and more dry-humping than a Li’l Wayne rap video.

Director Jeremy Hutton is no sucker for the cliché portrayal of the star-cross’d lovers. In his rendition of Romeo and Juliet, Hutton transforms Old Verona into modern, urban Italy, the streets littered with drunken teenagers and a reeking promise of new mutiny lingering in the humid Italian air.

“There is an expectation,” says Hutton, “that I, like many others, must have some sort of special concept to make the play exciting again. It was my goal from the outset to avoid that pitfall.”

But special and exciting it was. In each scene, the audience was dazzled by the fresh makeover given to Shakespeare’s greatest romantic tragedy. Even the smallest details provided the grandest twists for the audience, from the Capulets’ strip club, equipped with wigged male and female strippers, to the rave-like atmosphere at the Capulets’ feast, and from Friar Lawrence’s garden nestled in the basket of his bicycle to his subtle purchase of drugs from a Verona teenager.

I have never felt more convinced by a cast than at this performance of Romeo and Juliet. The actors were born for their roles. The audience feels the anxiety in Jeremy Lapalme as Benvolio, the most level-headed of the Montagues. His glasses slide down his nose as he flutters around and his peppy nature livens up the stage. Benvolio’s constant source of anxiety, Mercutio, was played by Joshua Browne. He executed Mercutio’s soliloquy dynamically, scampering about the stage and humping anything he could get his hands on.

Lesley Robertson takes the role of the nurse by storm in her cute kitten heels and slim figure. Her articulation in the accent of a working-class woman, her frizzy blonde bun, and her awkwardly timed rants leave the audience begging for more stage time from her. Scott Moore sparkled in the shoes of Friar Lawrence. Even the role of Peter was cast perfectly to Cameron Laurie,  who turned him into a hysterical character lurking around where he shouldn’t be and offering much-needed comic relief.

Paolo Santalucia’s debut at Hart House Theatre brings life into the role of Romeo. His pained gaze locked with the audience, and he declared in a defeated whisper, “Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs.” Santalucia rekindled the beautiful lines of the play I had long forgotten existed in the wake of “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” and “I defy you, stars!” Darwin Lyons’ Juliet, though successful in channeling the virginal young Capulet, came up short compared to her forbidden lover. Santalucia, with his effortless angst and saucy temperament, was a strong presence to share the stage with.

Throughout the play, the audience is enthralled as Romeo and Juliet, naïve in their love, transcend the hateful rumblings of Verona. At the Capulets’ feast, this juxtaposition between the fresh love of Romeo and Juliet and the hatred between the Capulets and Montagues materializes through Melanie Mastonardi’s choreography. When Romeo first approaches Juliet with his “unworthiest hand”, the thumping baseline of the dubstep blaring from the DJ’s speakers halts, snuffed out by Ludovico Einaudi’s delicate piano instrumental. The lively, dancing party guests abandon their wild dancing and pair up; the women sway gently in their men’s arms as each couple subtly acts out the words of Romeo and Juliet’s dialogue. The effect is amplified when the lovers’ brief encounter halts, and the dubstep and drunken stupor abruptly resume around the lovers.

Even disguised in Hutton’s rough-’n’-tumble Verona, the tragedy of the young lovers’ demise crushes the audience. I still felt what Shakespeare originally set out to convey: pity, not so much for the tribulations the young couple endures, but for the senselessness of their deaths.

The show runs at Hart House until November 24. Visit harthouse.ca/romeo-juliet for show times.

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  • Darren Savage

    This is a wicked review. I’m looking forward to checking this out on Friday night!