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Shakespeare's R&J

Freeing Romeo and Juliet from Censorship

Adaption by Joe Calarco
Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia
Tuesday, February 26, 2013, East B-2&4 (second row on side of theater-in-the-round)
Directed by Joe Calarco

William Shakespeare wrote a lot of naughty stuff, and among the bawdiest of his plays is the teenage romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. It could be rated MA for L, S, V, and D: the language is graphically salty, the sex is lust-filled, the violence is gratuitous and shocking, and, though it centers on teen-agers, the themes of its dialogue are so adult.

Two boys pulling on a red fabric circle each other as two other boys in the background watch, all in white shirts and tan trousers.
Student 3 (Joel David Santner, left) and Student 4 (Rex Daugherty) play out the Mercutio-Tybalt duel while the Student 2 as Benvolio (Jefferson Farber) and Student 1 as Romeo (Alex Mills) watch in Signature Theatre's production of Shakespeare R&J. The red fabric, representing weapons in a fight in this scene, served a number of purposes for the students. Below it provides the dresses for Student 4's Nurse, Student 3's Lady Capulet, and Student 2's Juliet as they sew while discussing Juliet's prospects for marriage. Photos by Teresa Wood, Signature Theatre.

When four boys in a strict Catholic boarding school discover a text of the banned Romeo and Juliet in their dormitory one night, how do you think they will regard the play? Heck, the opening scene is locker room talk ending with a big fight, as enticing as Death Race 3 to a 16-year-old boy. But their journey from that scene to play's end is the coming-of-age story that adaptor and director Joe Calarco gives us in Shakespeare's R&J, his stripped-down, passionately aggressive, and exuberantly played version of Shakespeare's classic. As the four boys who comprise the cast discover themselves through acting out Romeo and Juliet, we discover that play all over again and, in this production, we discover a searing Juliet and an astonishingly new take on Nurse.

"They ruined a great play," said one couple who left during the intermission. For me, though, Shakespeare R&J reveals a great play.

The stage in this theater-in-the-round production is bare except for a couple of chairs and a trunk. Panels fronting the balcony seating and the stage lights above matches the polished-wood stage, giving the whole theater an academic-hall feel. That alone merits winning praise for designer James Kronzer, but he knocks us breathless when the panels above, bearing candles, lower to the stage to create a romantic room for Romeo and Juliet's one night of love together. Chris Lee's lighting design is as dramatic as the text, with its use of spots and highlights, at one point turning the boys' blue uniform jackets red, at another using lights to create a rainstorm. Sound Designer Matt Rowe provides key effects that maintain the overriding tension of the play's environment.

That environment is the regemented oppression of the school, where the boys march from classroom to classroom, respond automatically to the bell's chiming, learn by rote repetition, and study Latin, proper manly manners, and paternal order (they recite from a late 19th century American etiquette book, which includes the merits of a husband spending his evenings at a club and arriving home at midnight to a welcoming wife).

Student 1 (Alex Mills) is already showing signs of unease with all this regimentation of action and thought; he's not so much rebellious as dealing with emotional passion and artistry erupting within him. At night, Student 1 awakes Student 2 (Jefferson Farber), Student 3 (Joel David Santner), and Student 4 (Rex Daugherty). The lines Student 1 speaks here are from A Midsummer Night's Dream—"Now it is the time of night, that the graves all gaping wide, every one lets forth his sprite"—as he unveils the copy of Romeo and Juliet hidden under a floorboard. The four boys start reading the play and begin acting it out, eventually freeing themselves from their uniform jackets, vests, and ties.

As the four boys play Romeo and Juliet, some characters are necessarily cut or combined, and the play is quite condensed, but the essentials are all there. The boarding school framework is always there, too. The chimes sounding trigger regimented responses in the boys, and a knock on the door sends them into a panic—until they realize these are part of their play (Juliet's "The clock struck nine," and Nurse pounding on Friar Laurence's door). The fear-inducing intrusions remind us of the dangerous sport they are playing; they also create a presiding aura of strict moral obligation that likewise hangs over fair Verona in Shakespeare's original.

The characters of the students transition with the characters of the play like radio stations vying for the same frequency as you drive cross-country. The boys play the play as if it's a finished production, but they react as themselves as certain scenes or lines strike an emotional chord. At key points, they consult the text: that was cool, what's next?! does it really say that? uh-oh. As Romeo (Mills) and Juliet (Farber) part in the bliss of love, Students 3 and 4 are reading the next scene in the corner, and so they are the first to discover to their horror that Juliet's father has betrothed her to Paris. When you've seen Romeo and Juliet a dozen times yourself, watching the boys experiencing the play for the first time reminds you how shocking the plot twists can be and how ill-fated these lovers truly are.

Shakespeare's R&J, then, is really two plays in one, with the framework plot being the discovery of inner selves, including sexual orientation. Student 3 turns homoerotic as his Mercutio plays the Queen Mab scene with Romeo. This incites the vitriol of Students 2 and 3, who roughly persuade Student 3 back onto the straight path, and the homosexual current submerges until Romeo meets Juliet. Mills' Student 1 playing Romeo is clearly unleashing his gay self through the play, but Farber's Student 2, who had in the previous scene admonished Student 3 for going overboard with Mercutio, is playing Juliet, and he enters into the relationship with much trepidation. Once he discovers the possibilities within that relationship, though, he comes to love Student 1/Romeo with a fervent defiance.

The marriage scene resonates in our own current political climate. When Students 3 and 4 read what's about to happen, they try to stop the play, Student 3 by speaking Friar Laurence's actual lines in that scene: "These violent delights have violent ends, and in their triumph die…therefore love moderately, long love doth so: too swift arrives as tardy as too slow." When Romeo and Juliet persist in acting out the scene, the other two boys rip the page from the book and tear the sheet into pieces. Student 2/Juliet is crestfallen, but Student 1/Romeo begins reciting Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day"), and Student 2 joins in. Seeing love persisting, the other two boys acquiesce, and they not only allow the marriage scene to resume, they facilitate the consummation of the relationship. A long piece of red fabric that has allegorically served a number of uses—including as weapons in the fights and as dresses for Juliet, Lady Capulet, and Nurse all sewing together—becomes the bedclothes in the balletic, candle-lit scene.

That, by the way, is the only sweetly romantic moment in this play. These boys play Romeo and Juliet with Shakespeare's frankness in portraying teens discovering both their hearts and other body parts. The boys also bring their schoolboy personalities to their various parts in the play. Santner's Student 3 is the most obviously intellectual of the four, and he ends up playing Mercutio, Friar Laurence, and Lady Capulet. Daugherty's Student 4 is the conformist and something of a bully—he therefore most represents homophobia in the production, and he plays Tybalt and Nurse.

As Nurse in the opening scene, Daugherty prattles on humorously, but he really revs up as he tells the story of Juliet's stumble as a little girl and its sex-pun punchline, incessantly repeating it because, perhaps like Nurse, this boy can't get enough of telling a dirty joke. From there, though, Daugherty's Nurse departs from the normal manner of playing her. She does not like Romeo from the moment she meets him (he is a Montague, after all), and when she returns from her first mission to Romeo and tells Juliet "you know not how to choose a man," she's not joking. This Nurse also strikes a key chord in her mourning over the death of Tybalt, whom she calls "The best friend I had." I've never before seen a production pay such close attention to this vital piece of information. Daugherty's Nurse remains angry with Romeo even in Laurence's cell, emphasizing that Juliet is calling for Tybalt as much as for Romeo. She becomes apalled at Laurence's homily to Romeo, especially when the priest tells the boy that in slaying Tybalt, "There art thou happy." Daugherty gives an all-out sarcastic reading to the lines "O Lord, I could have stayed here all night to hear good counsel. O, what learning is." She starts to leave before remembering to give Romeo the ring Juliet sent him, which she pointedly lets drop at his feet. Such a nurse would naturally later advise Juliet to marry Paris.

With Student 2's Juliet refusing to marry Paris, the three other students combine to play Capulet as he verbally berates her. But Students 3 and 4 go further: They pull off Student 2's pants and beat him, like a boarding school hazing, like a hate crime. For Student 2 it's a bewildering turn of events; for his character of Juliet, it represents her vulnerability and the emotional beating she has taken by this point in the play.

Three boys, wearing sweater vests and ties, mime sewing as they sit across from each other with a single red fabric covering their laps and legs.All four actors have strong Shakespeare-performing credentials, though Mills is making his verbal Shakespeare debut, having played in Synetic Theater's Silent Shakespeare productions, including playing Romeo. What shades their readings is the prism of the boarding school boys through which they play their parts, and this is most manifested in Farber's portrayal of Juliet. He/she is shy, naive at first, but once Juliet's passion unleashes, Farber plays Student 2 playing her with ferocity. The speeches are electric: "Love's herald" is spoken as a tantrum of impatience over the Nurse's tardiness; "Come night" is spoken as unbridled sexual fantasy while writhing on stage (he actually doesn't wait for Romeo to arrive before climaxing); her dialogue with Laurence is full of angry retorts and determination borne of desperation.

For the audience, such a fever-pitched performance lingers in the mind; and it obviously does for Farber's Student 2, as well. As morning dawns on Romeo and Juliet's death scene and the authorities approach, morning dawns on the boarding school, too. Students 3 and 4 quickly get back into their uniforms, but Student 2 is torn, especially as Student 1 will not give over his character of Romeo. "I dreamed a dream," Student 1 repeats—another borrowing from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Student 2 finally overcomes his Juliet and joins the others, and the three march off, leaving Student 1 behind.

Calarco wrote this adaptation in 1997 as he was serving as resident playwright and occasional director for an Off-Broadway theater company in New York. He had been assigned to direct what was supposed to be a scaled-down, all-male production of Romeo and Juliet at the John Houseman Studio Theatre, but when circumstances left him with just four actors, he devised the boarding school framework and created Shakespeare's R&J. It has since played around the world. For this run at Signature, however, he changed his ending. Student 1 had previously remained on stage, muttering "I dreamed a dream" as the lights went down. In a post-show talkback, Calarco revealed that as they were beginning rehearsals, a friend of his came out as gay, but it was a particularly painful experience for the young man. "I wondered how it would affect him if he was sitting in the audience," he said of the original despairing ending. So, in the new ending, Student 1, red fabric in hand, runs off stage and climbs up into the balcony, triumphantly shouting "I dreamed a dream!" the whole while.

Self-discovery can hurt; but it should ultimately be a triumph.

Eric Minton
Febraury 28, 2013

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