Shakespeare's R&J: Forbidden Love Again

Local Arts Reviews

Exhibitionism

Shakespeare's R&J: Forbidden Love Again

Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Whisenhunt Stage,

through October 10

Running time: 3 hrs

Though it is by turns the most beloved and most reviled play in the Bard of Avon's canon, Romeo and Juliet is nevertheless one of the most staged, adapted, and revamped of Shakespeare's works. The tale of star-crossed lovers has inspired classical movies (Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version), Broadway musicals (West Side Story), hipster updates (Romeo + Juliet), pop songs (Dire Straits, Indigo Girls), Oscar-sweeping comedies (Shakespeare in Love), and, for more than a few freshmen, new heights of fear and loathing for the 435-year-old playwright. That said, you may find it hard to believe that this Zachary Scott Theatre Center version, which finds four Catholic school boys unlocking the magic of theatre as well as a torrent of secret passions through their surreptitious performance of Romeo and Juliet, is worth your while. Well, it is.

Though it's doubtful that this or any version will convince the play's naysayers, you can't get much further from its most famous incarnation -- the schmaltzy Zeffirelli film -- than uniformed teens without a lush set piece or low-cut period costume in sight. Meeting secretly at night to rehearse an all-male version of Romeo and Juliet, the boys are able to shake off the chilly, soul-straining rigor of their well-heeled youth in favor of the fiery embrace of imagination, romance, and drama. In theory, the journey of discovery sounds a great deal like Dead Poet's Society (and, interestingly, both employ portions of A Midsummer Night's Dream to evoke the magic and mystery of the dark), but Shakespeare's R&J is, first and foremost, a restaging of that play, with a very different discovery to make: The actors playing the doomed title characters fall in love with each other. Joe Calarco's adaptation adds almost negligible amounts of dialogue to the original text, instead conveying its peripheral tale of the four boys through body language, gesture, and slow, silent yearning. Protected by the mask of night, they explore this forbidden love, but eventually each boy must choose between fleeing to the security of conventional life or remaining in the dangerous, crackling fire.

This all-male conceit, which comes off as so Nineties progressive, is in many ways a return to the play's origins, which were strictly all-male by convention of Elizabethan theatre. And it certainly makes sense to set the play in a high school, since Romeo and Juliet were but teens themselves (although, sadly, these talented actors are not). Best known for her work with the Rude Mechanicals, Sarah Richardson is a fitting choice to direct the play, which depends heavily on movement to convey its message. Richardson brings a deep understanding of physicality to the fore, and the result is a sharp, finely directed work which clicks at all the right moments. With only wooden stools and a generous, rippling swathe of blood-red silk between them, the boys manage to act out every character and every action without losing us. Martin Burke cuts an unusual Romeo, less romantic pining and poetry than girlish shrieks and clownish humor. But Burke also brings to the role youthfulness, along with the same charm that audience have come to expect. The ensemble works together seamlessly -- Chris Hatcher's fragile, suggestible Juliet; Aaron Michael Johnson's broadly comic Nurse; Jon Watson's hammy Mercutio and measured, prudent Friar Lawrence -- although I found my eyes returning to Watson, whose ability to pivot emotions and characters so fluidly was a delight to watch. The cast's performance is so expert that the framing device begins to feel like an intrusion; Calarco must have sensed this, because he practically abandons the peripheral story altogether in the second act and lets the Bard take center stage as we anticipate the shattering tragedy we know lies in ambush. In fact, when the play switches from Romeo and Juliet back to the four boys at play's end, it snaps us out of our tragic reverie and thrusts us back into a story that feels, by comparison, mundane. Maybe that's the point. But even if Calarco's adaptation were just an elaborate excuse to restage an oft-staged play -- with a production this deft, it hardly matters.

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