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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare’s R&J
  • James Loehlin
Shakespeare’s R&J. Adapted and Directed by Joe Calarco. John Houseman Studio Theatre, New York City. 9 May 1998.

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Figure 1.

(L-R): Sean Dugan and Daniel Shore. Shakespeare’s R&J, a new interpretation of Romeo & Juliet. Adapted, directed and designed by Joe Calarco at The John Houseman Studio Theatre. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

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Figure 2.

(Clockwise from top): Danny Gurwin, Daniel Shore, Greg Shamie and Sean Dugan. Shakespeare’s R&J, a new interpretation of Romeo & Juliet. Adapted, directed and designed by Joe Calarco at The John Houseman Studio Theatre. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Joe Calarco’s arresting adaptation of Romeo and Juliet takes place after curfew in a parochial boarding school, where four boys perform Shakespeare’s play as a creative rebellion against the repressive conditions of their lives. With remarkable energy and virtuosity, the four actors of R&J produce a vivid exploration of youth, sexual identity, and the liberating powers of art and love.

The setting is minimal in the extreme: the low-ceilinged basement black box of the John Houseman Studio, with three blocks for seating. The four young actors wear black trousers, school ties, and gray sweaters with a small red and black cross insignia. The only real prop is a piece of red silk three or four feet wide by ten feet long. This cloth serves a multitude of functions, representing not only props and costumes (swords, poison, Juliet’s bedspread, the nurse’s scarf) but more abstract entities like the space dividing Romeo and Juliet in the balcony scene, or, most strikingly, the soul leaving a person at the moment of death.

The frame story of the four schoolboys contains no dialogue as such, only scraps from other texts. The play begins with a choppy pantomime of the boys’ daily routine: they march in right-angled formation, go to confession, recite Latin conjugations (“amo, amas, amat”) and Catholic interdictions (“Thou shalt not!”). Their rushed and mechanical movements are punctuated by sudden gasps of adolescent terror, particularly when they approach the guilt-ridden terrain of sexuality. Finally, at the day’s end, they slump down in exhaustion, panting and loosening their neckties. One of their number, who will turn out to be Romeo (Greg Shamie), produces a text of Romeo and Juliet and invokes the mysteries of night with Puck’s words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This nocturnal explosion of adolescent creativity has more than a whiff of Dead Poets Society sentimentality about it; nonetheless, the production goes on to create not only a gripping version of Romeo and Juliet but many illuminating connections between the Shakespeare play and the frame story. Performing the young men of Verona provides a release for the schoolboys’ pent-up sexual energy and aggression. They wrestle and roll on the ground in a display of youthful verve, deftly handling the Petrarchan conceits of the language while taking the text at breakneck speed. The boisterous physical friendship of Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio and Balthazar is the element of the play most immediately applicable to the lives of the four schoolboys, and they enter joyfully into its spirit. Accordingly, the text is rearranged so that Romeo and his friends remain the center of the action through the Queen [End Page 71] Mab speech. Only then do the boys have to deal with the fraught issue of gender.

The introduction of female characters marks a crucial turning point in the play. The two boys playing the Nurse and Lady Capulet begin their roles in a style of outrageous, campy parody, emitting high-pitched shrieks and shimmying about the stage adjusting imaginary breasts. In response to their giggling calls for Juliet, one of the boys (Daniel J. Shore) holds up the red cloth in front of him, then slowly lowers it to waist height, fixing them with a determined stare and a slight, enigmatic smile. Very deliberately, in his normal masculine voice, he/she asks, “What is your will?” Abandoning their misogynistic portrayals, the boys watch breathlessly as their friend begins to embody Juliet without any obvious gender...

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pp. 71-72
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