Farewell My Friend Review - An Intimate Experience of Star-Crossed Lovers

 

Karissa J. Murrell Myers (Iseult) and Zachary Schley (Tristan). Photo by Cody Jolly Photography

 

(re)discover theatre presents their latest take the timeless tale of star-crossed lovers with its current production of Farewell My Friend, an immersive theatre experience that intertwines the tragic love stories of Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Iseult. Originally produced in 2015, Farewell My Friend brings its audience into close contact with these stories, creating a fresh interpretation and new perspectives on familiar tales.

 

Tara Bouldrey (Juliet) and Raj Bond (Romeo). Photo by Cody Jolly Photography

 

Set against the backdrop of Epworth Church, Farewell My Friend begins by assigning each audience member to either the Montague or Capulet family. These assignments offer suggestions more than determine fates; audience members are free to either follow their family throughout the performance or to “forge their own path” and choose to follow another part of the story instead. This format allows audience members who are nervous or uncertain about immersive theatre to have structure and a certain degree of linear storytelling for their experience, while also allowing a sense of freedom and adventure for those interested in bouncing between character tracks. For my part, I found a balance between the two extremes, wandering off when something caught my attention but always finding my way back to Juliet and the rest of the Capulets in the end.

 

Shariba Rivers (Lady Montague). Photo by Cody Jolly Photography

 

The absence of a universal audience experience in immersive theatre both fascinates me, as a theatregoer, and frustrates me, as a critic. It is impossible for me to write about every scene and element of this performance because I simply did not and could not experience it all in one viewing. For instance, Kelly Schmidt’s performance as Mercutio caught my eye from across the room and in the fight sequence between Mercutio and Tybalt, but I didn’t get the chance to see nearly as much of her work as I would have liked. On the other hand, Tara Bouldrey is a spectacular Juliet, capturing the journey from the uninterested object of Paris’ affections to a giddy teenager in love to a determined, suicidal woman with sophistication and nuance that elevates the character to unexpected heights, and I cannot express any regret at having witnessed so much of her acting instead.

 

Tara Bouldrey (Juliet) and Raj Bond (Romeo). Photo by Cody Jolly Photography

 

The intertwining of the story of Tristan and Iseult with that of Romeo and Juliet achieves mixed success. At times, the perfect symmetry of their stories resonates gorgeously, like in the wedding scene, which takes place in the cell of the gender-flipped Sister Laurence. While Romeo and Juliet kneel and Tristan and Iseult stand behind them, the two couples intertwine hands and speak the same vows, in a moment that is both beautiful and haunting.

 

Karissa J. Murrell Myers (Iseult) and Zachary Schley (Tristan). Photo by Matt Wills

 

On the other hand, this type of immersive storytelling relies to a certain extent on the audience’s existing knowledge of the story; for example, despite having very limited interactions with Benvolio and Mercutio up to that point, I was still able to understand what was happening in Mercutio’s death scene because of my familiarity with the script. The story of Tristan and Iseult, however, is much less of a cultural touchstone than that of Romeo and Juliet or of the Arthurian legend that Tristan and Iseult inspired, that of Lancelot and Guinevere. As such, their story, told mostly in dance and movement, is harder to understand except as something that follows the same general arc as that of Romeo and Juliet, and their presence seems to exist more to support Shakespeare’s story than to stand on its own.

 

Paul Hovey (Balthazar) and Almanya Narula (Sister Laurence). Photo by Cody Jolly Photography

 

What is most exciting about this production, in the end, is the chance to experience Romeo and Juliet from a perspective that is genuinely fresh and offers an intimacy with the characters that can be found in few other forms of theatre. Perhaps my favorite moment of the evening was the balcony scene. As oversaturated as our culture is with this scene, it is difficult to present it in a way that is not agonizingly trite, yet in this performance, I watched that scene from the balcony itself and witnessed Juliet’s passionate encounter with her new lover in a way that I had never imagined before. This simple point-of-view adjustment reframed a familiar image into a totally different experience of character and story.

 

Tara Bouldrey (Juliet) and Raj Bond (Romeo). Photo by Matt Wills

 

The production must also be complimented on its take on Juliet’s consumption of the potion that causes her to fall into a deep sleep; without giving too much away, it reflects on her experiences in a way that is equal parts terrifying and gorgeous and unites her with Iseult in a powerful and resonant way. So, too, must the production be complimented on its diversity in casting, with people of color filling several leading roles, including Romeo and Iseult, and women filling two roles normally performed by men. Finally, fight choreography by William Bennett provides an exciting experience of up-close violence without ever sacrificing realism.

 

From left to right: Kelly Schmidt (Mercutio), Julian Stroop (Benvolio), Paul Hovey (Balthasar). Photo by Cody Jolly Photography

 

I will end my review with this, the portion of the evening that most haunts my consciousness after leaving the show. Juliet’s Nurse led me by the hand to an alcove where she and a character I later learned is Brangien, handmaid to Iseult, performed a high-stakes piece of dance that ended with Brangien’s fraught exit from the space. Then, I took part a quiet but heavy moment in which I was prompted to participate in some kind of ritual handwashing and to smell a handkerchief inside a painted box. I am still seeking to understand the full meaning of this scene, and perhaps I will never find it, but despite my lack of understanding of the scene’s surface-level story, I was still deeply moved, deeply touched by the experience. This is what Farewell My Friend has to offer its audience: an emotional experience that is defined as much by words as by their absence, and a plurality of journeys that makes it worth seeing again and again.  (re)discover theatre has done something great.

 

Top: Zachary Schley (Tristan) and Karissa J. Murrell Myers (Iseult). Bottom: Raj Bond (Romeo) and Tara Bouldrey (Juliet). Photo by Matt Wills

 

Ticket Information

Dates: September 3-24, 2016

Times: Thursdays –Sundays @ 8:00pm + Saturdays @ 4:00pm

Location: Epworth Church - 5253 N. Kenmore Chicago, IL

Tickets: $25 general admission. Tickets and further information can be found at the (re)disocver theatre website.

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