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Theater Review: “Shakespeare’s R&J” at Signature Theatre

“Romeo and Juliet” gets a contemporary twist in Joe Calarco’s play, currently being revived at Signature.

Alex Mills, Joel David Santner, Jefferson Farber, and Rex Daugherty in Shakespeare’s R&J. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

According to writer and director Joe Calarco, people have got Romeo and Juliet all wrong. The classic Shakespearean tragedy has been produced for centuries, and often, Calarco posits, with far too much wide-eyed sweetness and innocence. “It’s about two teenagers who kill themselves because they can’t be together. That’s insane. Not romantic,” Calarco says in a playbill interview about Shakespeare’s R&J, his provocative take on the love story currently playing at Signature Theatre.

Shakespeare’s R&J layers the star-crossed lovers’ journey with that of four pupils at a repressive all-boys school who discover a tattered copy of the work and read it aloud. The concept is bold and exciting, and this production brings passionate acting, simple and effective design choices, thought-provoking contemporary parallels, and a lot of the spine-tingling darkness Calarco was going for. What its play-within-a-play format lacks is consistently working on both levels at once. Luckily for Calarco and his cast and crew (and the audience), the Capulets and Montagues’ tale of woe has long been required high school reading and theatrical fodder for a reason.

A Catholic boarding school seems an appropriate setting for a story about the perils of breaking tradition, seeking forbidden desires, and painful coming of age (Dead Poets Society,anyone?). The militant environment the artistic team has created comes to life in the opening scenes with impressively little spelled-out backstory. This is a shiny mahogany world of memorized commandments, mandated confessions, and starched blazer uniforms, where classic literature is stashed under floorboards and coveted as scandalous, and it all comes across through simple lighting and intimate in-the-round staging (a first for Signature’s MAX space). Scenic, lighting, and sound designers James Kronzer, Chris Lee, and Matt Rowe execute a delicate touch that, combined, creates a deceptively simple but rich and haunting ambience. The atmosphere is powerful enough to hold up throughout the show despite the action focusing mainly on the actual Shakespearean text rather than both storylines. Clearly the juxtaposition of the two is what makes the production interesting—and when it works, it works well. When it doesn’t, more balance could make the already striking production that much stronger.

We never learn their names, but the four young students are still able to communicate dimensional characters and complex relationships. Playing all roles, the four (Alex Mills, Jefferson Farber, Rex Daugherty, and Joel David Santner) each embody the hot-blooded, sexually charged teenage angst befitting Verona and the elite halls of their academy. Mills and Farber, as Romeo and Juliet, respectively, have more material to work with and infuse their performances with the violent intensity Calarco has envisioned, but there’s no weak link in the bunch.

When Calarco first produced the play off-off-Broadway in 1997, sex and marriage scenes between two men held a different weight and meaning than they do in today’s political climate. Images of the two young lovers being torn apart or overcoming a society that doesn’t want them together feel more poignant as the gay marriage debate rages on. The question of whether this is a gay love story or a story of young people experiencing sexual and artistic enlightenment regardless of gender or orientation remains unanswered. But either way, the timing of the production allows for an impact the material might not otherwise deliver.

In this adaptation, the boys are learning the madness of young love and the transporting power of words on a page as the action unfolds. The story’s been told before, and the fusion of the students’ eye-opening experiences in reading the play and Romeo and Juliet’s experience in living it can feel a little lopsided at times, but the heartbreak of youth, and the awe of discovery and growth is there in full force.

Shakespeare’s R&J is playing at Signature Theatre through March 3. Running time is about two hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($40 and up) are available via Signature’s website.

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