Ellora Patnaik shines doubly bright in Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Romeo and Juliet ~ Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Ellora Patnaik (photo courtesy of the artist)

Ellora Patnaik (photo courtesy of the artist)

“Nurse is a dream role for any woman!”

And who better to take on Nurse than the multitalented Ellora Patnaik? Her portrayal of this coveted role is unlike any before it in the radical retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, currently running in Toronto’s Withrow Park and directed by Andrea Donaldson.

Just when it seems that the maverick Shakespeare in the Ruff company has peaked in terms of original interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays (last year they performed Macbeth with puppets!), they’ve identified another novel approach. This time, they’re tackling the tragedy of ill-fated lovers Romeo and Juliet. Everyone knows this love story: two families hate each other, but their children – boy Romeo and girl Juliet – can’t stay away from each other. They marry in secret . . . then kill themselves out of despair and misunderstanding. How else to tell it?

Well, what if the play was set, not in Elizabethan Verona but in today’s Toronto? What if Romeo was played by a woman…who identifies as a man? What if the Montague and Capulet families were headed solely by matriarchs? And Friar Lawrence was a multi-faith practitioner?

Phillipa Domville, Ellora Patnaik and Kaitlyn Riordan in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in the Ruff, 2016 (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Phillipa Domville, Ellora Patnaik and Kaitlyn Riordan in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in the Ruff, 2016 (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

These are just a few of the twists in this fresh interpretation of the 400-year-old classic. All of a sudden, this “two hours’ traffic of our stage” sounds pretty hip – contemporized to include broader social and cultural implications that will resonate with the diverse urban audiences who are catching their Shakespeare not in an auditorium but among the trees and hills of sprawling Withrow Park. Impressive!

And Ellora Patnaik is ideal for assuming the contrasting roles of Montague and Nurse in a production where what’s expected is the unexpected. Equally comfortable on stage and screen, acting in classical plays or performing Indian classical dance (sometimes both at once), she has versatility to spare. Her enviably unique skill set is expediently utilized here. “I am so happy I got a chance to work with Shakespeare in the Ruff,” she enthuses.”Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play Nurse and Lady Montague?” Clearly thrilled that she can flex both her comedic and dramatic acting prowess within one play, she is particularly relishing the “dream role” of the bawdy Nurse, whose “dialogue is all juicy and incredibly entertaining.” Her Nurse is so worldly that donning ankle bells is as natural as whipping out her iPhone!

Brendan McMurtry Howlett and Ellora Patnaik in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in the Ruff, 2016 (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Brendan McMurtry Howlett and Ellora Patnaik in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in the Ruff, 2016 (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Ms Patnaik hopes that people will enjoy the company’s approach to this version of  Romeo and Juliet and feels that the contemporary treatment of the piece will help young people to identify with and relate to it – all while preserving the integrity of Shakespeare’s themes and words: “Many elements should feel familiar and present in their generation, for example, the music, technology, clothes, and sexual orientation.” Certainly, by incorporating pertinent contemporary references and relevant social issues, along with diverse casting and a deliberate nod to the theme of gender identity, the society portrayed in this Romeo and Juliet is a braver new–and tolerant–world. And one which Ms Patnaik hopes will yield a “fresh new freedom that (young people) can find to open their hopes and dreams to new opportunities and possibilities.”

At the same time, she reflects on the broader shifts she’s seen within the acting community since beginning her acting career in Toronto. “It’s lovely to see the diverse casting/staging in classical theatre,” she avers. “I’m cast as Romeo’s mother, and Romeo is played by the beautiful Vivien Endicott-Douglas. That’s some colour-blind casting!” And in her view, “the great thing is, people don’t need to find a reason as to why we are different. They just need to see the honesty in the work. So far, no one has questioned why an actor of South Asian background is playing the mother of our blond, blue-eyed female Romeo.” She has nothing but kudos for the “courageous casting from companies such as Shakespeare in the Ruff!”

“We’ve come a long way,” Ms Patnaik marvels. And this perspective should be encouraging to aspiring actors, especially those who are curious to try their hand at Shakespearean  drama. To them, she offers this advice: “young actors shouldn’t be intimidated by Shakespeare. It’s actually very fun and liberating. A little bit of patience . . . and shamelessness goes a long way,” she winks.

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Romeo and Juliet Company, Shakespeare in the Ruff, 2016 (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Romeo and Juliet Company, Shakespeare in the Ruff, 2016 (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

What: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare; with Wayne Burns (Benvolio), Andrea Davis (Prince), Phillipa Domville (Capulet), Vivien Endicott-Douglas (Romeo), Richard Lee (Tybalt/Friar), Brendan McMurtry Howlett (Paris/Mercutio), Ellora Patnaik (Nurse/Montague), Kaitlyn Riordan (Juliet); directed by Andrea Donaldson

Who: Audiences of all ages, with an advisory of mature themes

When: On stage until September 4, 2016, 8:00pm, with pre-show entertainment at 7:30pm. Running time is approximately 100 minutes with no intermission

Where: Withrow Park, 725 Logan Avenue, Toronto, ON

Good to Know: Admission is pay what you can, with a suggested minimum of $15/ person. Bring your own blankets or lawn chairs. Chairs are available for rent with advance ticket purchase via website.

FYI: Shakespeareintheruff.com

©2016, Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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