Joe Calarco likes to fiddle around with Shakespeare. I once saw his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (admittedly a play with which a lot of directors have fiddled) at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC. Mr. Calarco rearranged scenes, reassigned lines, and turned the dream into the nightmare of Bottom, the member of the “rude mechanicals” acting company who is fitted out with donkey ears partway through the play. There were also, for whatever reason, a couple of young male actors with nice bodies who spent much of the play wearing nothing but boxer briefs.
The young males with nice bodies wearing briefs are also onstage in Cygnet Theatre’s production of Mr. Carlarco’s Shakespeare’s R&J, which runs through June 16. But, they’re integral to Mr. Calarco’s vision, which is enacted with testosterone-laden energy by George Yé’s superb cast.
The setting is a religious school for young men, where strict discipline is maintained and where learning takes the form of regurgitating a memorized catechism that includes the proper roles for men and women in society. Four of the students have hidden away a text that has been banned from the school: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. After hours of regimentation, the four escape, pull the text from its hiding place, pull out a few props, and begin to enact the scenes.
Clearly, this exercise is not only invigorating but erotic and exciting for the young men. They dive in head first to the tale of family rivalry and gang violence, love at first sight, adolescent sexuality, and teenage suicide. But, as they perform the play they learn the subversive lesson that what they’ve memorized may not be true. And, they discover feelings for each other that they didn’t realize they were capable of expressing.
Some of you may have thought of a recent film, called “Private Romeo,” from this description. The film, which featured Seth Numrich, the hot young film and theatre actor of the moment, was apparently inspired by R&J. It’s eminently watchable, but the original is better.
Part of why it’s better lies in the immediacy of the production. Working on Sean Fanning’s simple platform set, lit effectively by Ross Glanc, Mr. Yé stages the action as close to the audience as possible, so as to move the liberation of the young men’s suppressed feelings to the forefront. The audience can almost smell the male energy.
But, the other part lies in how the set-up proceeds. In the film version, a classroom exercise that is supervised only by other students leads to two students understanding and accepting themselves as gay men. In Mr. Calarco’s version, the sexual energy leads to forbidden homoerotic behavior and violation of traditional gender roles and ultimately greater understanding of who the performers are as men, but whether anyone onstage can be understood as gay is speculative at best.
Particularly effective was the idea to cast four actors (Dave Thomas Brown, Christian Daly, Tyler Lea, and John Evans Reese) who were all graduates of the North Carolina School of the Arts, a program that emphasizes classical acting styles. Not only does the text come tripping off these men’s tongues, the camaraderie among the performers is palpable. [php snippet=1]Now, you do have to understand that while much of the text is from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Mr. Calarco has messed with it to some degree. Scenes and characters are missing, and text from other Shakespeare works (I noted in particular two sonnets and the final speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is interpolated into the script. If you’re not pretty familiar with how Romeo and Juliet is supposed to go, R&J, particularly Act 1, may confuse and possibly frustrate you. Act 2, however, focuses on the events leading up to the double suicide, and so its focus should be clear.
While high school age students would certainly enjoy this performance’s energy and may well identify with the characters, unless they’ve actually read the original or seen a traditional production of it, R&J might not be the best choice for introducing anyone to Romeo and Juliet, or even to Shakespeare. But, Shakespeare buffs (and there are plenty of them among San Diego theatre-goers) will glory in the subtle references but will most of all enjoy a rigorous and confident interpretation of a classic text.