Tuesday, February 26, 2013

REGIONAL THEATRE REVIEW: Shakespeare's R + J at Signature Theatre, Virginia


Review of the matinee performance on Saturday, February 23 at Signature Theatre in Virginia (at the Max Theatre).  Starring Rex Daugherty, Jefferson Farber, Patrick Foley and Joel David Santner.  Adapted and directed by Joe Calarco.  2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Grade: B-

The title of the show at Virginia's Signature Theatre is Shakespeare's R + J.  It suggests that we will be seeing is some sort of take on Romeo and Juliet.  If it were to be a straight forward production, Romeo and Juliet would suffice, and there wouldn't be the fancy "Shakespeare's" as part of the title - I mean who doesn't know who wrote the play about the star-crossed lovers?  As an adaptation of the classic tragedy, this play is mostly successful.  What is good about this production is very good, excellent even.  It is the framing device - full of potential to add something to the same old story so often told - that brings what could have been a thoroughly thrilling piece of theatre down to an occasionally exciting one.

The main conceit here is that four boys at an ultra-conservative boarding school have found a copy of Romeo and Juliet, and sneak around the shadows of the school reading and, ultimately, acting it out for their own gratification.  That you can figure this out from watching them march around the stage from class to class, shouting out math equations, Latin verb conjugations, and, tellingly, recitation of a 1950's manual on the roles of husbands and subservient wives, shows what promise this framing device has.  Their curriculum and unisex environment are meant, I suppose, to underline the fact that these adolescents are supposed to lead a sexless existence, where marriage is a business arrangement long in the future.  Love, let alone sexuality, are not to be mentioned.  That has to be the reason why the Bard's little play is only to be found hidden beneath the lose floor boards of the venerable institution.  It is never really explained, nor is it more elaborated upon after the opening minutes of the performance.

Discovering Romeo and Juliet

Also in its favor is that director/adapter Joe Calarco has reduced the original text to its most violent and sexually charged scenes - the boys delighted by the sword play and death, and turned on by the sexy stuff.  They even giggle and absent-mindedly touch themselves when scouring the pages for any hint of smut (lines about "bosoms," "naked tools drawn," and the lot play heavily in each re-enacted scene).  Who knew just how dirty this play is?  Leave it to four horny teenagers devouring forbidden fruit to bring it down to its most base elements.  It also works for the audience - gone are the extraneous scenes and chit-chat used to keep the seats at the Globe full for a full day.

Even as I re-read this, it sounds like R + J is awesome in every way.  But what makes it sound so great is also its biggest downfall.  You see, despite a few interruptions (the new school day starting, an occasional clanging in the distance or imagined footsteps) which result in a quick straightening of the school tie and hiding of the book, there is really nothing ever at stake here.  Just how forbidden is reading this book?  Why?  What is the punishment?  Expulsion?  Detention?  Anything?  Even as the boys become more lost in the language and action, there is nothing to even really remind us that there's anything to lose here.  Ah, but there are those interruptions.  They serve not as reminders of impending danger or even how far the boys have come.  Instead, they stop any momentum.  The lack of intensity makes the entire conceit do the opposite of its intention.  Instead of making us care about the boys AND Romeo and Juliet, it puts a certain distance between audience and play and play.  We are talking about one of the greatest love stories ever told, one that, no matter how much we've seen it before, we are supposed to become emotionally invested, brought to tears whether they are Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria, or Student 1 and Student 2.

Romeo/Student 1 kisses Juliet/Student 2

Part of what also takes some of the heat out of this version is that it doesn't have the same shock value it probably had some 16 years ago when it was first presented.  That heat would have added a layer danger and an element that might have made us care just a bit more about the kids playing the parts and the parts themselves.  That element - two boys discovering their sexual awakening together, kissing, making love - is just not shocking any more.  As it is now, the interesting thing is that an all-male cast plays all the parts, not that the forbidden text has led to forbidden love.  More distance, as we marvel only that each actor navigates several roles exceptionally well, not the emotional heft of it.  There is one scene that hints at what could have been - tense, passionate and a cross-breeding of the conceit and the text of the play.  At one point in act two, as Juliet is becoming an emotional wreck, two of the other students start beating the boy playing her.  They punch, kick, hit him with the book, and in a final act of violence tear his pants down.  He immediately covers his genitals.  Has Juliet been unsexed?  Are we reminded that a boy is playing the part for any reason?  And perhaps more prescient - have we just witnessed a gay-bashing by two boys who suddenly realize just how far this has all gone, causing them to reassert their masculinity?  That the Romeo and Juliet scene continues without pause is interesting and thought-provoking.  And it is the only really high-stakes moment that makes you care at all what happens to these four.

Juliet and the Nurse share a tender moment
(Rex Daugherty, seated, and Jefferson Farber)

Now, you might be wondering at this point why I still give the play a grade of "B-." Well, there are several things that make it worthwhile.  First of all, paring down the text makes every moment of the performance of the play important.  And if you really know the original text, you'll probably marvel at the pace and piecing together of the script, not to mention the occasional interpolation of other famous bits from other plays (A Midsummer Night's Dream figures poignantly).

Second, Calarco's direction has an often breath-taking theatricality to it.  It is remarkable to watch the four actors reconfigure themselves to create visual meaning to go along with the words they are speaking.  It is often amazing to watch as a small chest and two chairs create a seemingly endless change in locale.  There are six important props - the book, four flashlights and a long red scarf.  Ah, that long red scarf - an endless source of fascination without ever being a distraction.  At times, it is sewing material, a conjugal bed, a barrier between foes, and most spectacularly, it is the sword fighting that happens throughout the story.  Yes, you read that right, sword fighting.  I couldn't possibly explain it correctly, and yet that is exactly what it is.

The Red Scarf as turmoil
(Joel Davis Santner as Lord Montague)

The Red Scarf: A quiet moment in the Capulet house
(L to R: Daugherty as Nurse, Joel David Santner as
Lady Capulet, and Jefferson Farber as Juliet)

And there are the production elements that celebrate all things theatrical.  There's James Kronzer's gorgeous wooden in-the-round platform that works in tandem with Chris Lee's provocative lighting effects, both of which work with Matt Rowe's superb sound design (including music and vocal effects by composer Gabriel Mangiante).  They are all amazing, but there are moments that tickle all of my theatrical senses.  Case in point: as the characters (and the boys playing them) reach new levels of sexual awakening, they are surrounded by streams of mist that end in points of light that literally frame the stage, trapping them inside.  Later, as Romeo and Juliet bring their love to the physical, the stage is literally framed by points of light in the form of flickering candles.  The symbolic becomes physically real, simply and excitingly.  Those moments remind me of why I love live theatre.

The Mist

But really and truly, the best part of the production is the cast.  These four actors are gifted Shakespearean actors.  They are also brimming with youthful vitality (though they are all clearly much older than high school) and each conveys that awkward masculinity brought about by those first sexual feelings in conflict with those last days of boyhood abandon. Rex Daugherty and Joel David Santner play the supporting roles - mining the comedy out of the Nurse (Daugherty), the holiness of Friar Laurence (Santner), and the intensity of the warring parents (both), among others. Patrick Foley (an understudy, though you'd never be able to tell it from his performance) brings a youthful exuberance to Romeo, playing each moment of his spectacular mood swings with precision and reality.  But it is Jefferson Farber, as Juliet, who threatens to steal the whole show from the rest.  His conflict, his emotions, his sorrow are all on point and combine to make a riveting performance.


It is important to note, too, that both Foley and Farber nail the emotional connection between Romeo and Juliet AND Student 1 and Student 2.  When they both finally give in to the romance, the line between Romeo and Juliet and R + J is blurred in an exhilarating way.  I'm guessing that this is what all involved hope that the whole thing is.  Would that it were.

(Thanks to Mike for talking this through with me.  Our post-show chats really make going to shows together the best experiences.)

Photos by Teresa Wood


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