Review: Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare in the Ruff)

Romeo_and_Juliet 2Shakespeare in the Ruff presents Romeo and Juliet in Toronto’s Withrow Park

I love outdoor theatre. And Toronto is fortunate to have several companies offering quality productions every summer.  Shakespeare in the Ruff is currently presenting Romeo and Juliet in Withrow Park.  Although it may not be as established as the productions in High Park, it is worth planning a trip to the east side to see it.

The setting is informal. People bring lawn chairs and set out blankets (which are also available for rent).  There is a community art project to explore before the show.  Passersby walking their dogs stop to ask what’s going on. And in a move that thrilled this ‘80s music lover, several of the actors came out to teach us Modern English’s Melt with You in preparation for an audience participation segment. It felt like a community picnic.

But once the show starts, we are transported to a Verona dominated by strong female characters. Director Andrea Donaldson has cast women in the roles of the Prince, Montague, and Capulet. Romeo is also played by a woman.

For the most part, these changes worked well. Having Capulet as Juliet’s mother created some interesting mother/daughter dynamics. Her desire to marry Juliet off to Paris seemed more manipulative and emotional rather than politically motivated.

I thought the non-traditional casting of Romeo worked less well. Earlier in the play, the fact that she is a woman is highlighted and played for comedic effect. Juliet’s nurse makes much of feeling Romeo’s chest and noticing her breasts with a wink to the audience. Other characters make a point of referring to her as “she.”

However, as the play progresses, Romeo is only referred to as “he” and called “husband.” I was confused. Maybe the point is that gender doesn’t matter. But if that’s the case, why revert to the traditional gender?

The acting throughout was very strong. Vivien Endicott-Douglas, as Romeo, and Kaitlyn Riordan, as Juliet, made the giddy shock of love at first sight seem genuine. Brendan McMurtry-Howlett showed a great mix of bravado and goofiness as Mercutio, especially coming home from the ball. And Ellora Patna was a  wacky and erratic, but good–hearted as the Nurse.

The company made great use of the natural setting in southwest corner of the park. The audience is seated at the bottom of a hill. The action moves up and down the incline, sometimes right in front (or even among the audience) and sometimes quite far away. No matter where they were, I never had a problem hearing or understanding the dialogue, even though there were no microphones. Quite a feat in an outdoor setting.

The lighting design by Andre du Toit is particularly beautiful. Though the evening turned dark shortly after the play began, the space was magically illuminated. The actors carry bundles of branches wrapped in fairy lights. And white, illuminated globes in a variety of sizes are used to both for light and to define space. I loved it.

All in all, it was a great evening.  A well-acted production in a beautiful setting.  Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Romeo and Juliet is another way to take advantage of summer in the city.


  • Romeo and Juliet is playing in Toronto from August 16-September 4 (no Monday shows) in Withrow Park, 725 Logan Avenue at 8:00pm.  The play is in the southwest corner of the park near Logan and Bain.
  • Tickets are PWYC with a suggested donation of $15, cash only
  • There are special evenings including post show bonfire talkbacks and  pre-show family workshops.  See website for details.

Photo of Vivien Endicott-Douglas and Kaitlyn Riordan by Eva Barrie