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Shakespeare’s R & J – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 11, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

A tight-knit band of boarding school students (from left: Alex Mills, Joel David Santner, Jefferson Farber, and Rex Daugherty) uncover a secret copy of the banned play “Romeo and Juliet” in “Shakespeare’s R&J,”  Photo: Teresa Wood.

A tight-knit band of boarding school students (from left: Alex Mills, Joel David Santner, Jefferson Farber, and Rex Daugherty) uncover a secret copy of the banned play “Romeo and Juliet” in “Shakespeare’s R&J,” Photo: Teresa Wood.

If you had in mind a romantic tale about two star-crossed lovers, the beautiful Juliet and her thwarted Romeo, only part of your fantasy will be realized…that would be the part about the star-crossed lovers.  In Adaptor/Director Joe Calarco’s Shakespeare’s R & J, a modernist reinvention of Shakespeare’s classic drama, four young men who live by the strict rules and regulations of a boy’s Catholic boarding school, play all of the characters.

His edgy version of the tale has the rambunctious blue-blazered preppies asJuliet, Nurse, Lady Capulet, Lord Montague, Romeo, Tybalt et alia in an interpretation that will blow your breeches off, if you get my drift.  The play begins when the students discover an illicit copy of Romeo and Juliet that they agree to act out amongst themselves.  Calarco has woven some contemporary bits of dialogue into the original.  But the play’s still the thing, if not the players.

Set designer James Kronzer’s simple coffered ceiling-surround frames the rigorous, near militaristic, life of bells and classes, prayers and confessions against the Ten Commandments and Latin conjugations.  In this isolated social laboratory the young men recite cautionary homilies describing the differences between the sexes.  It is only after dark, when they extricate the book from its cache beneath the floorboards and take on the character’s roles, that their individual personae emerge, freed from the discipline of the institution.  At first they revel in Shakespeare’s double entendres, the sexual references scattered amid the romantic prose, and play those to the hilt – four schoolboys displaying their childish glee is predictable.  But then their individual characters come into focus and we begin to see a clearer definition of their hidden frustrations and yearnings.

There is whooping and hollering, nipple tweaks, roughhousing and campy high-voiced interpretations of some female characters – these are boys after all.  And then there are the love scenes – most assuredly not for the prudish.

Two students (Alex Mills, left, and Joel David Santner) get caught up in their reading of “Romeo and Juliet” ,”  Photo: Teresa Wood.

Two students (Alex Mills, left, and Joel David Santner) get caught up in their reading of “Romeo and Juliet” ,” Photo: Teresa Wood.

The production starts out slowly, perhaps too slowly, but becomes rivetingly alluring, though there is a certain constant wide-eyed emotiveness to the delivery of the lines that lacks interstitial relief.  It is in-your-face Shakespeare forsooth.  But therein lies the rub.  It’s actually exciting to see a Juliet that is assertive, aggressive and demanding of her lover; a Romeo that is muscular, passionate and sexual; and a production that is tremendously physical.  One wonders how they will keep up such dizzying athleticism throughout the run.

Yet be assured that tempus fugit when you’re condensing an entire play in one fell swoop.   There is no nudity, but the imagination does what the imagination does, and a few buff bare-chested men and a silky red 15-foot length of cloth can create a world of gender-bending fantasy encompassing both violence and love.

Presenting Shakespeare is a first for Signature Theatre and this one makes for an explosive debut.  Chris Lee has created magnificently atmospheric lighting, once dropping down a framework with hundreds of candles to border the stage, in another scene creating a prison wall of pin lights to pair with sound designer Matt Rowe’s often eerie sometimes thunderous sound concepts.

One of a tight-knit band of boarding school students (Alex Mills) attempts to express himself through poetry   Photo: Teresa Wood

One of a tight-knit band of boarding school students (Alex Mills) attempts to express himself through poetry Photo: Teresa Wood.

Actor Alex Mills, who performs regularly at Synetic Theater, where their silent Shakespeare series affords him few lines, is outstanding.  Along with Joel David Santner, Rex Daugherty and Jefferson Farber they make up the compact but spectacular cast.

Through March 3th 2013 at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

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