Beach House Theatre is going back to the Bard for its eighth season.
But don’t worry – you won’t need a crash course in 16th-century English language and politics to grasp the main production for this year’s stint at the tent stage at Blackie Spit in Crescent Beach (Aug. 13-18).
For this return to Shakespeare, Beach House’s production team has chosen one of the playwright’s two most accessible plays for modern audiences, Romeo and Juliet (the other, arguably, is A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
There’s also a return to familiar territory this year with the choice of family-friendly daytime matinee show – Love You Forever, and More Munsch, based on the works of ever-popular children’s author Robert Munsch, directed by Ian Harmon.
As always, tickets should be booked well in advance for these popular summertime attractions.
Among popular returning players this year for Romeo and Juliet are Tom Gage (Romeo), Marika Stanger (Juliet), Janine Guy (Lady Capulet) and Michelle Collier (playing the role of Montague, as revised to Lady Montague).
It’s a version dressed in more modern garb – and with good reason.
More familiar modes of dress help modern audiences identify relationships and social status – but it’s not stretching a point to claim, as co-director (and Beach House co-founder) Candace Radcliffe does, that the star-crossed lovers of Verona have plenty of relevance in our own era of hate speech, political polarization and nascent youth activism.
“This play, in particular, has a story that is so resonant – about oppression in love and rebellion against that oppression,” she said.
“It’s a pretty thought-provoking story,” she added, noting Romeo and Juliet’s still-compelling warning about the destructive potential of entrenched bitterness and hate between warring factions.
But she argues that while the tragic nature of the plot is well-known, it tends to be over-emphasized in popular conceptions of the play.
“A lot of people think Romeo and Juliet is a story about a couple of depressed teenagers,” she said. “Sure it’s tragic, sure it’s sad, but it’s so much more.”
Shakespeare pioneered a theatrical approach that balanced tragic and comedic elements in close proximity, and there’s much in Romeo and Juliet that is upbeat and funny – including the awkward sweetness of two young people in love for the first time, she said.
She added she and co-director Abby Swansburg are both on the same page in wanting to capture the ebullient – and timeless – spirit of youth in Shakespeare’s text.
“When you look at Romeo, he and his friends are young guys out drinking and crashing parties and telling rude jokes,” Radcliffe, also head of the theatre department at Earl Marriott Secondary, said.
“That’s very real today – I have two teenage sons, I know,” she laughed.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised how much joy and humour Candace and I have been able to find,” Swansburg added.
“Even though it is traditionally a tragedy, it seems with each reading and meeting we have about the show we are laughing or finding tender moments that aren’t tragic or sad.”
It’s also very much part of finding ways to make the characters matter to the audience, Swansburg said.
“And, again, this seems to emerge through comedic moments. There is a lot of death in this play and – as Candace says repeatedly – in order for us to care when they die, we have to find ways to make them memorable and adored when they are alive.”
Swansburg, currently vice-principal and Grade 7 intensive arts education teacher at White Rock Elementary, is also an EMS alumna long-known to Radcliffe and Beach House co-founder Rick Harmon.
Harmon, former Marriott drama head, has co-directed the main shows since the company was launched in 2012 – and while much involved in co-ordinating the production, is not co-directing this year, due to travel plans. Swansburg, previously stage manager for Beach House, was happy to step into the role.
“I know how rare it is to have a friendship and the ability to co-direct as I do with Rick, but it’s also the same with Abby,” Radcliffe said.
“For me it’s like lightning strikes twice – I don’t think I could do it with just anybody.”
“I was honoured to be asked to work with her this year in a new role and I’m excited to get to work creatively with the cast in a way that I haven’t before,” Swansburg said, noting the “talent and chemistry of the cast members,” both new and returning.
“They all bring such an authenticity and excitement to the show – it already feels electric,” Swansburg added.
Another area in which Radcliffe and Swansburg share excitement is the physical look for the show, co-developed by the more-than-capable hands of widely experienced theatre-designer Omanie Elias.
“We’re calling the concept 20th century timeless,” Radcliffe said. “Because of themes and characters that tend to resonate with modern times, we’re blurring that edge between classical and contemporary, with non-specific 20th-century elements side by side with classical, much like what you see in modern Italy, in which you can see very modern design in very ancient streets.”
It also picks up from the black-and-white concept Radcliffe explored in a version of Romeo and Juliet she directed at Marriott in 2011, which strove for a monochrome photographic look, particularly in its early scenes.
“As their relationship blooms, more colours emerge – we’re kind of using that,” she said, adding that Elias is adding her own touches and expertise to a design that resembles “a Renaissance chess board.”
“Omanie is so talented and experienced that she took our initial idea and has crafted something so spectacular and better than what we even started with,” Swansburg said.
Fight consultant Devon Boorman and choreographer Carol Seitz are also adding to the richness of the production, Radcliffe said.
“This is a piece I’m really excited for Beach House audiences to see this year,” Swansburg added. “I think they will be blown away at the beauty and intrigued by the layers of the concept Candace brilliantly came up with.”
For tickets, visit beachhousetheatre.org