If the name Shakespeare Bash’d sounds familiar, it’s for good reason. For two years in a row, the collective creative effort founded by James Wallis and producer Rob Kraszewski has been upending the way local audiences experience the Bard’s work. In 2012, Shakespeare Bash’d’s Fringe Festival staging of The Taming of the Shrew, at Mirvish Village’s Victory Café, earned citywide praise.
“This version of Shrew benefits from energetic performances, the actors’ sense of freshness and spontaneity, and a strong, clear handling of the text,” wrote Jon Kaplan, reviewing the show in NOW Magazine. Mooney on Theatre described it as a “must-see” in 2012. And our own review of the show was no less effusive.
In 2013, it was Much Ado About Nothing, though the audience’s response was anything but. Yet again, Shakespeare Bash’d had taken a venerable favourite, set it in a bar, and, in so doing, stripped the whole production of any and every pretense—long the curse of Shakespeare on stage. Raucous, rowdy, and splashed with what could be likened to the energy of the early Globe Theatre, there was no unnecessary affectation, and there were no stuffy accents. This, Kraszewski told us at the time, was Shakespeare the way Shakespeare intended.
We sat in on a full run-through of the play at Tarragon Theatre. This latest production, of course, is not comedic, like Much Ado About Nothing or Taming of the Shrew. Though not without a bit of levity in the first act, Romeo and Juliet is the most notoriously tragic of Shakespeare’s works.
Wallis himself is among the first to admit that setting the play in a bar presents a few challenges. There’s the tightly choreographed and surprisingly intense sword fighting, for one. There’s also the fact that Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous and popularly scrutinized Shakespeare plays that a young troupe could attempt.
But the production also has some things working in its favour, like the irresistible kinetics that Shakespeare Bash’d—a company comprised of some long-standing veterans of Toronto theatre—naturally brings to any production. Rather than alienating audiences with DiCaprio-style emoting, cast members bring a disciplined, carefully interpreted honesty to their roles.
Some highlights? Milan Malisic, in the role of Mercutio, all but explodes as Romeo’s ill-fated right hand. “For the first act,” Malisic said, “it’s Romeo and Mercutio. Romeo and Juliet doesn’t really start until the second act.” Hallie Seline, meanwhile, is a better-rounded answer to the often-vacuous, insubstantial Juliets of other productions. She acts as a realist counterbalance to Kelly Penner’s painfully idealistic Romeo. Jesse Griffiths is an infectiously wry Friar Laurence. And as the nurse, Julia Nish-Lapidus grounds the play with equal parts hilarity and maternal gravity.
Honestly, it’s impossible to choose a single highlight from the entire production, or even a handful of them. Shakespeare Bash’d is a who’s-who of some of Toronto’s most talented actors, with two years’ experience making audiences a part of each performance. As the show kicks off, Capulets and Montagues mingle on either side of the bar, exhorting audience members to hang out with them and completely shun the other. Even before the play begins, pint-swilling patrons are already immersed in the social tension that will erupt in tragedy by the play’s final act—something that definitely doubles its dramatic effect.
In keeping with what Kraszewski’s and Wallis’s troupe has always done best, this is an entirely collaborative effort, creating a critical mass of talent ready to explode once again—and this time, take the Junction with it.