Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night dir. Danielle Irvine and Michael Waller, Perchance Theatre in Shakespearean performance at Cupids (NL), 2016Tragedy

  • Rob Ormsby
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Romeo and Juliet dir. Danielle Irvine, Perchance Theatre in Shakespearean performance at Cupids (NL), 2016

Reviewed by Rob Ormsby

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David Feehan as Romeo and Erin Mackey as Juliet (photo credit by Pam Whelan)

The seventh season of Shakespearean performance at Cupids (NL) extends the traditions that theatregoers have become accustomed to there. The cast includes actors familiar from past seasons, though the company (Perchance theatre since 2014; formerly known as New World Theatre Project) continues to enlist new performers. Danielle Irvine, now in her third season as Artistic Director, has programmed the usual combination of one comedy and one tragedy—Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet. The prevailing mood is one of easygoing amusement that spectators clearly appreciate.

This season also continues the unfortunate portable-toilets-right-next-to-the-attractive Indeavour Theatre tradition. The sight of these blue plastic boxes does mitigate overly romantic notions of the theatre’s “authenticity” and, in fairness, Irvine’s program note jokes about their presence. The joking is part of the whole company’s light-hearted self-consciousness, an attitude that affects this season’s two productions rather differently.

Twelfth Night

Unlike her straightforwardly serious 2015 Macbeth, Irvine embraces an open-air festival atmosphere in directing Twelfth Night. She has made the topsy-turvy world of Illyria easily legible in the approximately nineteenth-century costumes that most characters wear back to front (or inside out) and the upside-down flower boxes fixed to the underside of the thrust stage’s roof. In case anyone misses the point, Irvine works these details into her friendly pre-show banter about turning off cellphones.

The performances are, in their various ways, extremely broad. Paul Wilson’s sighing Orsino, with the back of his hand pressed gently to his furrowed brow, looks like a near relation of the actor’s gesticulating Dr. Caius from Perchance’s 2014 Merry Wives of Windsor. Likely as a result of Wilson’s overly theatrical narcissism, there is not much credibility to the attraction Lauren Shepherd’s Viola feels for this Duke, an attraction that Shepherd works to demonstrate and to contemplate in her direct addresses to the audience.

Possibly, the “human” dimension of vulnerability is not meant to be read in this production, as Alexis Koetting’s Olivia snaps from mourning to lust the second she spies Shepherd in Viola’s Cesario guise. The scene is performed not to produce any psychological realism or depth, but it is wholly plausible according to the show’s treatment of desire. Indeed, the humour is at its broadest in the scenes between Stephen Lush’s Antonio and Zachary Cross’ Sebastian. Here, the conventional wisdom about the subtext of Antonio’s sexual attraction for Viola’s twin becomes the blatantly singular motive for Lush’s slavering, grabby Antonio.

Although Cross plays Sebastian as oblivious to (or uninterested in) his companion’s grossly obvious advances, he seems to be under Antonio’s influence as he thrusts his hips upon realizing Olivia’s unexplained longing for him. Koetting’s Olivia, too, catches a dose of Antonio’s mania, working herself into a lather at what she mistakes for the sight of two Cesarios (designers Christine Kenny and Jessica McDonald help ensure the two characters are remarkably similar).

By contrast, Irvine generates some sympathy for the play’s biggest losers in love, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (George Robertson) and Malvolio (Greg Malone). The simplistic desire of Malone’s upstart puritanical steward is, like the other characters’, treated as cliché, an opportunity for derision. Malone is all pursed lips, high cheekbones, and flared nostrils, yet his ordeal in prison (cleverly managed at centre stage through the trapdoor and with the help of Andrew Tremblett’s capable Feste) and his subsequent shaming adds a pathos normally avoided in the production.

Robertson’s performance as Sir Andrew seems designed to gain even more of our sympathy, though this appearance may be because of Robertson’s talent for playing underdogs who never quite manage to shout to the top. This is not to declare a preference for “humanized” comedy, but to note two exceptions to the rule in Irvine’s Twelfth Night.

John Sheehan’s drunken Sir Toby may be another exception in the production, though if he humanizes this figure of misrule, he does do in ways that convey the actor’s signature persona, one that blends self-regard with self-effacement. Whether or not this blend is Sheehan’s own personality, it is his forte, and Irvine has sensibly allowed the performer’s individuality to colour the role. Such individuality does not, in any event, preclude a broad streak of broad humor, with Sheehan ad-libbing “Freebird!” as Sir Toby boozes with Sir Andrew and Feste.

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Greg Malone as Malvolio (photo by Pam Whelan)

Romeo and Juliet

Director Michael Waller encourages loud audience participation at the start of his show: actors hand out Shakespearean insult sheets to the crowd (which has been divided into a Capulet and a Montague section), instructing them to jeer at the warring servants of the two households. The moment explicitly draws on the conventions of festive interactivity encountered at many open-air Shakespeare performances.

The risk of such a tactic is that it can be difficult for performers to draw a crowd back to the tragic, crowds being mutable and unpredictable creatures. The difficulty of returning the action to something more serious and complex than jeering (which the actors attempt) was evident the afternoon I saw Romeo and Juliet, as the audience joyously gave itself over to shouting “Villain, I have done thy mother!” (the insult imported from Titus Andronicus’ Aaron being the favourite by a mile).

There is a marked difference between the generations as the cast settles into the serious business of killing off a handful of characters. Koetting and Wilson as the Capulets and Robertson as Montague found the gravitas they sought, whether they were speaking directly to us or not. Malone, a legend as a comedian, turns in an exceptional performance as Friar Lawrence, especially in his opening speech. I have never seen him act this earnestly before, and he held the audience that afternoon with what is, essentially, a botany lecture.
David Feehan and Erin Mackey work hard at their title characters. Yet, while Feehan is a strong performer and Mackey has gained a huge amount of confidence in three years with this company (she stood out in the thankless role of Hero in last year’s Much Ado About Nothing), they do not quite manage the depth of feeling that they aim at. A better way to put it is that, in a production that relies for many of its effects on a tangible relationship with the audience, they did not quite make the necessary connection on that particular afternoon.

There were a few other instances of unevenness on the day I saw the show. Shepherd plays the Nurse for comic relief very well, offering a rapid-fire delivery of her lines while balancing a hilarious tea-cosy / rat’s nest of a wig on her head. Yet, for some reason, the audience did not take to it. Meanwhile, Sheehan is a far more sober Mercutio than might be expected of him. Toning down his natural charisma shows more than it might if Lush’s Tybalt wre less magnetic. As it is, Lush’s flashes of rage at the slights to his Capulet honour are truly compelling.

It could be that the kind of performances Waller and his actors have devised work better in this theatre (and for the spectators it attracts) at night, which is something that Irvine’s 2015 Macbeth suggested at moments of its unfolding. Or it could be that Perchance’s all-are-welcome-including-babes-in-arms-and-dogs attitude—which is integral to the company’s identity and would be a shame to change—just sometimes generates friction with a production’s modes of presentation.

Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night continue in repertoire until August 28. For more information see: http://www.perchancetheatre.com.

Author: Rob Ormsby

Robert Ormsby is as Assistant Professor in the department of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. His main areas of research is Shakespeare in Performance, and he has published articles in Shakespeare Survey, Shakespeare Bulletin, Cahiers Élisabéthains, Modern Drama, and Canadian Theatre Review. His monograph on Coriolanus is forthcoming in 2014 in Manchester University Press’ Shakespeare in Performance Series.
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