It's plausible to suggest that Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is one of the best known plays around the world. Theatre companies around the globe have produced it the traditional way or have offered a modern take on it. The play has also been the source of inspiration for musicals (West Side Story and more recently, Bare: The Musical or its predecessor Bare: A Pop Opera), books, Hollywood movies and much more. Reading the play is also a common English assignment in most American high school classrooms. So, I ask, is this tale of forbidden love still really all that worthy of all that attention?
Enter Joe Calarco. He's been tinkering with this story for around fifteen years and demonstrates that yes, there are always new things to discover about the play and its main theme of forbidden love.
Calarco's adaptation, Shakespeare's R&J, considers the "what if?" What if reading the play was not a standard assignment in a particular high school English class, but instead was a banned activity? That's indeed the premise of his play.
Four young boys attend a very conservative all-male Catholic boarding school. Their days are spent conjugating Latin verbs, learning moral lessons, and being taught to be model citizens. Though the play is banned from the school, the boys discover a hidden copy of the script and begin to act it out at night when the authorities who closely watch their every move are not there to tell them what to think, feel, and do. In doing so, they learn more about each other, their relationships, and the nature of love, affection, and even lust. Like the characters in the classic play, they toy with what's forbidden to them and seek to carve out their own journeys in the world.
Shakespeare's R&J is certainly not a new adaptation. As stated previously, it's been around for more than a decade. In the 1990s, it received a much lauded Off-Broadway production which paved the way for more than its share of American regional theatre productions and several in Europe and Asia. A revised version, first seen in the United Kingdom, is now receiving its American premiere at Signature Theatre. Signature seems like a reasonable venue to try the new adaptation out given Calarco's long association with the company and perhaps even more to the point, its penchant for premiering new works or giving old works a fresh coat of paint.
Does it work? Yes; for the most part.
On the negative side, the script can get a bit tedious and overwrought and, in today's era, it's hardly astonishing to see four young gay men dealing with the issues of forbidden love/lust. It may leave some asking, "ok, so what's new?" Likewise, the parallels between the students' predicament and that of Romeo and Juliet are highlighted more than once to the point where some segments of the audience might feel like saying "ok, we get it already." Teenage angst, although certainly present in the original Shakespeare play, is also heightened to the level that one would expect in a CW network television show. Whether this is a good thing or not is simply a matter of taste.
Ok, enough of that. Let's get back to the good. The Calarco-directed production succeeds thanks to some marvelous production concepts and four stellar young actors - Rex Daugherty, Jefferson Farber, Alex Mills, and Joel David Santner - taking on the roles of the four boarding school students who immerse themselves into the world of the play.
James Kronzer's sparse set - which is essentially a shiny wooden stage, a trunk, and two chairs - allows the audience to fully appreciate the cold, sterile yet refined world that the students inhabit. As the production is done in the round, it allows the audience to fully and intimately engage with the actors and the story in a way that would likely not be possible with a proscenium staging. As they put the show on in the dark of the night with few resources at their disposal, flashlights and other small props (scripts, a piece of red fabric etc.) are used to bring the show to life in an astoundingly theatrical way. Kathleen Geldard's costumes, which consist of typical male boarding school attire, further establish the world in which the students live. Matt Rowe's sound design, consisting of - among other things - voice-overs and sounds of a clock striking various times, is helpful in conveying the shifts between the real world and the world within the play.
Chris Lee's lighting design also needs to be seen to be believed - particularly during several brief moments in Act I -, but it's by far the most interesting use of lighting that I've seen at Signature. The juxtaposition between lightness and darkness, perhaps simulating repression vs. freedom, is not only theatrical, but also does well to highlight the major themes presented in the play such as self-discovery and sexual awakening.