Shakespeare’s R&J is a dance, exquisitely choreographed by Joe Calarco with words and music by William Shakespeare. It is the Bard’s great tragedy, done up almost to the word, but recontextualized, as the passage of almost four hundred years might recontextualize it. Or, put another way, it is exhibit A in behalf of the case that when something is true, time can make it different but will not change it.
Or put it like this. In a time like ours – I am guessing 1967 but your results may vary – four young men struggle through the rigors of Catholic military school. They march; they conjugate Latin; they recite the Pythagorean theorem. They utter the commandments and conventional pronouncements on the roles of women and men with equal rote vigor.
And then it’s night, and from underneath the floorboards they pull out an old copy of Romeo and Juliet. They gaze at it in lust and fear as though it is porn, or a book of incantations – and, in a sense, it is both. Then they begin to read.
Romeo and Juliet is, above all things, a story of forbidden love. Awash in individualism as we are, we think of it as a tragedy caused by the villainy of old Capulet, who unreasonably insisted that his thirteen-year-old daughter make a political marriage, even though she is in love with another man.
But in Shakespeare’s time marrying for love was a novel idea, and the concept of a young girl wedding against her father’s wishes was as dangerous as the thought of the horse being allowed to reject the bridle.
Within my memory, and the memory of many of you, the expression of homosexual love radiated the same aura and threat to the social code. So in this play one student (the supernally athletic Alex Mills) takes on the role of Romeo and another (Jefferson Farber) becomes Juliet; a third (Joel-David Santer) is Mercutio and the Friar, among others, and the fourth (Rex Daugherty) is Tybalt and the Nurse, among others.
They tuck into all the familiar tropes of the story with the coltish enthusiasm of seventeen-year-old boys. They giggle and snort at the sexual puns which open the play; they cheerfully hack at each other during the fight scenes (a gigantic red drape serves as all the weaponry – sword, dagger and poison). They pour out their passion without inhibition, whether it is Romeo bemoaning the loss of Rosalind or Mercutio in the grip of the madness of Queen Mab
And then Romeo and Juliet begin to dance together.
I have seen the play done where the young men playing Romeo and Juliet seem to discover their feelings for each other in this scene for the first time, and from there, in horror and giddy joy, fall into that same place where once Romeo and Juliet were. But this production is different: it has the feeling that the boys have conjured up a recurring dream, and the two young men are dancing a dance they have danced before, and mean to dance again. Their eyes glisten; their mouths hang open; and you can tell that, for them, the rest of the world has taken a vacation.
As Joe Calarco is the director, it is a fairly safe bet that the director knows what playwright Joe Calarco has in mind. So we can conclude Calarco intends this: to show how everything Shakespeare told about forbidden love in the last decade of the sixteenth century applied to the seventh decade of the last century.
Everything from Romeo and Juliet – the scene in which Juliet’s mother and nurse introduce the idea of her marriage to Count Paris (interestingly, the characters played by Daugherty and Santer play those roles broadly and campily until Farber’s Juliet answers in a normal voice; the trio then act the scene without “acting”, and are utterly convincing); the manipulating Friar’s plot to bring the warring families together; the secret wedding; the tragic fight between Tybalt and Mercutio and Romeo’s revenge; old Capulet’s fierce demand that Juliet marry Paris; her feigned death and Romeo’s real one – is reenacted, and it all resonates with the same fire as the original.
A generation ago, directors achieved the same affect by using an African-American actor to play Romeo and a Caucasian to play Juliet; and a generation prior to that they transformed the Montagues and the Capulets into rival gangs (you may have seen that one). Calarco achieves the same thing here: we can see that despite our veneer of civilization, humans are prone to tragedy as the sparks are prone to fly upward.
To get this right, the actors cannot merely be excellent Shakespearean actors (Daugherty and Farber have sterling Shakespearean credentials, and Mills and Santer also have superb acting résumés). They must be seventeen-year-old boys acting Shakespeare, which means that they must deliver the classical lines in a manner which makes them immediately clear to a contemporary audience, but at the same time convince the audience that they are schoolboys, brimming with passion and immaturity and full of horsey physicality. This quartet delivers the goods. They are as precise as a ballet troupe and as volatile as a Youth-league basketball team.
James Kronzer’s scenic design is of necessity minimal – the production is staged on a square in the middle of the Max – but evocative, full of somber polished woods which deftly suggest an ancient institution with secrets hidden in the walls. Calarco occasional injects some special effect into the production – thunder, lighting, disembodied laughter, and the like. I do not know what purpose this serves but Lighting Designer Chris Lee and Sound Designer Matt Rowe execute it perfectly. Lee also does a nice job of suggesting darkness without actually making the stage be, you know, dark.
4200 Campbell Avenue
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $90
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Calarco has made an important observation about the human condition and has crafted it into a powerful play which, when given a full-throated production (as it is here), informs and inspires. Playwrights routinely believe that their point will be lost unless they make it more strongly, and are thus tempted to rewrite, but Calarco would be right to trust his own material and the material of the master upon whom Shakespeare’s R&J is based.
Shakespeare’s R&J . Adapted by Joe Calarco from Romeo and Juliet by Williams Shakespeare . Directed by Calarco . Featuring Rex Daugherty, Jefferson Farber, Alex Mills, and Joel David Santner . Creative team: Scenic designer James Kronzer, lighting designer Chris Lee, and costume designer Kathleen Geldard. Sound design Matt Rowe . Original music by Gabriel Mangiante. Kerry Epstein was the production stage manager . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor