Theatre Calgary’s Shakespeare By the Bow pandemic production of Romeo and Juliet well-suited to the times we are in

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has gotten used to all of my social connections taking place via a screen. Perhaps four months ago, it would have seemed like a gimmick to see the cast of Romeo and Juliet interacting mainly via their phones and laptops, but lately it’s how I see most people anyway, so why shouldn’t art imitate life? 

COVID-19 restrictions have called on theatre companies all over the world to get resourceful in trying to continue to ply their trade, so far tending toward one of three things: short film, table read or radio play. Theatre Calgary’s Pandemic Edition of Shakespeare by the Bow has set an ambitious goal — a live performance that isn’t limited to a table read at eight computers, but a fully “staged” production complete with dance party and even a sword fight. The actors are spread out in their homes in Calgary and Edmonton, subject to the same potential for the unexpected as if they were on stage in person — with the added charm of the vagaries of wifi. The characters often interact via Skype, Facetime or a role-playing video game, much like we all have been doing since March. Indeed, the Verona of this production is under a quarantine order due to the plague, and the characters are seen wearing masks that are starting to feel oddly familiar. 

As usual, Shakespeare by the Bow is a venue for Theatre Calgary to showcase emerging artists, and they are lucky to have found a real-life couple, recent grads of the Rosebud School of the Arts, in Anna Dalgleish and Zach Running Coyote. They are an engaging and authentic Juliet and Romeo, and have the advantage of being able to kiss (and die together) in their own home, without running afoul of public health officials.

When it comes to the rest of the cast, director Haysam Kadri has made an effort to show them in motion and seeming to meet in person, using similar backgrounds to suggest that they are in fact together in the same space. This isn’t always entirely successful (“similar” being the key word when it comes to a scrim in two locations with radically different lighting, or devices in two locations with widely variable microphone quality), but it’s at least clear what he’s suggesting, and one can imagine that technique being honed to the point where it might really be seamless in the future, with a bit more money and practice. 

He has embraced the medium at the same time, though, with graphics and animations that bridge the scenes, establish context, and do the heavy lifting when it comes to action that simply can’t be realized by videoconference — the above-mentioned sword fight being the most notable example, courtesy of animator Kurt Firla. He is originally from Calgary, but has a pedigree that includes Robot Chicken and Super Mansion, and while his work here is understated in comparison, it’s a thoroughly delightful interlude. I’m going to go ahead and call for more Firla as theatre companies explore this new world. And if a tragedy can be said to have a hero, in this case it’s probably technical director Graham Kingsley, whose work is the glue that holds this production together. 

The adaptation of the original text is the brainchild of Kadri (Artistic Producer for The Shakespeare Company and a Stratford alumnus) and TC’s Jenna Turk. It isn’t quite The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), but it certainly flies by, at a surprising 50 minutes, while maintaining all of the key plot points. Some cleverly-placed anachronisms keep the quarantine gag running, and there’s an appearance by Mayor Nenshi and two references to his “clean hands, clear heads, open hearts” mantra. 

The well-known and much-loved tale of two moderately silly teenagers in love is perfectly suited to the cavalcade of social media, video games and dating apps, and Kadri and Turk leave no Tinder reference unmined.

There is a cloud of uncertainty hanging over theatre companies all over the world, but this production gives me hope that we don’t have to wait for a vaccine before we can see our favourite stage artists doing real theatre work. There are some techniques here that need honing, but it’s easy to see how this could point the way to a new way of experiencing theatre. 

Romeo and Juliet is live at 7pm every Wednesday and Saturday until July 18. Go to for the link to watch for free, and consider a pay-what-you-can donation via text or online. 

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.