THEATER REVIEW: “Shakespeare’s R&J” at the Cygnet

When I read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in school, I thought it an impossibly wonderful romantic story of love, loss and death.

I guess I was lucky, because these days the play (featuring teen sex and suicide) is almost as likely to be banned as assigned. This may have inspired the four boys in Joe Calarco’s “Shakespeare’s R&J” – pupils in 1964 in a Catholic boys’ school identified as Student 1, Student 2, etc. – to squirrel away a forbidden copy.

When they’re not marching, conjugating Latin verbs, reciting the Pythagorean theorem or reading about male and female sex roles (from an etiquette book quoted in Elizabeth Aldrich’s “From the Ballroom to Hell: Grace and Folly in 19th century Dance”), they haul out the play and read it aloud, snickering at the sexual innuendoes and throwing themselves into the fight scenes with a 17-year-old’s abandon.

Calarco’s adaptation takes liberties with the play by excising characters and inserting other Shakespearean writings: I counted three sonnets plus the ending of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And Director George Yé emphasizes the physicality of youth with fight choreography more visual and unrestrained than any in recent memory.

The first part of “Shakespeare’s R&J” is almost a dance, in which the students seem in near constant motion, from classroom to reading to acting and back.

It’s busier but less fascinating than the second, partly because it takes a while to figure out what’s going on. And it’s a little confusing – for example, why is Student 1 (Christian Daly, who later becomes Romeo) so often writing in his notebook while everyone else is busy with the play?

As they read the lines, the boys find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into the story until – after the lovers are married in Friar Laurence’s cell – the actors no longer read but become the characters, as if they were discovering love, loss and death with this theatrical encounter.

This is an audacious production, high in energy and testosterone level, imaginative in the use of props (especially a long length of red fabric to serve as weapons, blood, a screen and later even poison) and thrifty on sets.

But mainly, this show is about the union of these four extraordinary actors (all from the North Carolina School for the Arts) with George Yé’s first-rate direction and stunning fight choreography to produce a unique (if not totally successful) new look at an old classic, one in which gender really doesn’t matter.

Daly’s Romeo and Tyler Lea’s Juliet are just right as the young, impetuous lovers. Dave Thomas Brown is excellent as Mercutio, Lady Capulet and others. But my favorite is John Evans Reese, whose hotheaded Tybalt and hilarious Nurse almost steal the show.

“Shakespeare’s R&J” offers a new riff on the Bard, with a fab cast and terrific direction. It’s making its presence felt globally (there are youtube videos of the Japanese production). With a few tweaks in the first part, it could be a new classic.

The details

“Shakespeare’s R&J” plays through June 16 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 337-1525 or Click HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.