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Finding the comedy in the tragedy that is Romeo and Juliet

Guelph Little Theatre takes an alternative approach to Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers

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We already know how this story ends – in tragedy and death for the young couple at its centre – but what often gets missed are the comedic beats that move the story along. Indeed, it’s those moments of levity and humour that make the dark parts all the more poignant for audiences and, at least originally, shocking too.

It’s those elements of classic Shakespearean wit that the troupe at the Guelph Little Theatre want to lean into in their upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet, which opens next Thursday.

“I’m trying to pull as much funny out of it as I can. So we’re going for as much comedy as we can find,” explains play director Scott Lale.

“[Audiences] start the play at the end. You come on and you know it’s a tragedy already just by the way it presents itself,” he says. “So the whole idea is, it wouldn’t have been that way, and it would have been fun and boisterous, and you find the comedy, you find the fun, and in a way that makes… the ending that much worse.”

In that way, Lale hopes to take the story back to its roots. And it was that same search for authenticity that led the director to try an alternative approach to presenting the story – one that many modern audiences may not have experienced before, but would likely have been right at home in Shakespeare’s own time.

“The way it would have been performed originally was a lot rougher, a little more in-your-face,” says Lale. “The term I always use meta-theatrical, which is a really fancy word meaning its very self aware of the fact that’s it’s a piece of theatre.”

Gone are the many of the frills, elaborate set pieces and even the curtains to screen actors “offstage”, which were more modern additions to theatre, in favour of a sparse and open set design. The idea is to mimic the open-air theatres more prevalent of the time,

“There’s always this thing that Juliet’s got to be on a balcony,” says Lale, of the typical example of modern set design. “[Originally], she would have stood on a box behind a curtain, because that’s what they do. There’s no big set changes because they didn’t have the time, and the audience wouldn’t have stood for it, and that’s sort of the way we’re going.”

Bringing the meta-theatrical production to life on stage is a diverse cast of 14 members.

“They run the gamut of experience, some not having been on stage more than once in high school, and now it’s 20 years later and they jumped in with both feet. And some with a terrific amount of experience professionally in England and beyond that,” says Lale. “We also run the gamut in ages: our youngest performer is 15, and our oldest performer will be 89 when we hit stage.”

For Julian Murphy, who takes the leading role of Romeo, working in the minimalist setting has its challenges, but ultimately allowed him more creative freedom, he says.

“On the one hand, there’s less costuming and less sets, which initially seems like it might inhibit,” says Murphy. “But in everything that I’ve found, I’ve found that it’s opened me up and allowed me to explore the different venues of the character that I want to portray.”

Romeo and Juliet opens April 4 at the Guelph Little Theatre on 176 Morris St., Guelph, and runs for ten days with a final show on April 14. Show times are at 8 p.m. from Thursday to Saturday, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

“I would say that this is probably going be the funniest Romeo and Juliet you’ve seen,” says Murphy. “And it’s also probably going to be one of the most heart-wrenching just because it has such a funny quality to it, but also such an emotional and such a real component as well.”

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