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The Folger Theatre’s last production divided the title role in Hamlet among four actors, making physical the troubled Dane’s tendency to argue with himself. By loosing four testosterone-crazed Catholic schoolboys on all the parts in Romeo and Juliet, the theater’s current tenant, Shakespeare’s R&J, turns the opposite trick to similarly startling effect.

Think there’s a sign backstage saying “Play briskly, four to the bard”? Whatever. The tricks work. The schizoid Hamlet became a new sort of intellectual puzzle, almost a Freudian parlor game. And now, in Joe Calarco’s inventively streamlined adaptation, those oh-so-familiar star-crossed Elizabethan teenagers get a booster shot of passion and energy, not to mention all sorts of laughs and contemporary resonance.

Calarco begins by marching his uniformed adolescents (played by actors in their 20s) to the stage, where they recite the Ten Commandments and kneel for confession in regimented unison. A conservative Catholic worldview (“Men govern the world; women charm and influence it”) inflects the lessons they chant, but what’s most striking about their demeanor is how prep-school discipline squeezes all traces of boyishness from it.

Nighttime finds them more boisterous. Sneaking from their dormitory with flashlights and a bound volume of Romeo and Juliet, they search the text for sex and violence, discovering both in abundance. Actually, they don’t discover real sex at first—”Draw thy tools” prompts early sniggers—but giggles turn to gasps when they realize that the “tools” are weapons. “They duel!” says one boy excitedly, and that pretty much settles the question of what to do next. They start acting out the play, adopting roles as they come up.

The tension of these first moments clearly derives less from Shakespeare than from the adaptation’s central conceit. If four adolescent boys are going to perform all the roles in the play, the next few transitions are crucial. Calarco needs to get from lesson-chanting to acting, and from boys being boys (Shakespeare’s first few scenes concern duels and mischief-making) to boys playing girls and performing some of the classical stage’s hotter love scenes. Even if an audience is primed for the idea, making it persuasive on stage requires a few leaps of faith.

Fortunately, Calarco is a marvelously inventive director. Those who caught his cleverly stylized A Midsummer Night’s Dream a few months ago at the Lansburgh Theater or the breathtaking Nijinsky’s Last Dance he staged last year at Signature know he can conjure

character from head turns and glances, and is deft with mood-altering shafts of light.

Here, one of the evening’s trickiest mutations—from giggling schoolboys to strong, nuanced women—is managed with little more than a few flicks of a bolt of silk and a change of posture. It happens shortly after Scot McKenzie claims the role of Romeo for himself: Christopher Borg laughs as he watches R. Scott Thompson and Jerry Richardson mince through a few falsetto lines as, respectively, Juliet’s mother and nurse, but his smile fades when it dawns on him that the remaining role in the upcoming scene is Juliet and that he’s going to have to play her. Walking unsurely away from the others with the bolt of fabric he’s been handed, he initially looks crestfallen. But when he turns, he’s acquired that composure kids often possess when they’ve made their minds up to do a thing come hell or high water. You half-expect him to drape himself in the fabric, but he snaps it like a whip and then spreads it out like a quilt, and the other boys immediately sense a workable strategy. Rather than chirping their lines and goofing around, they mime sewing motions and use normal voices, and a major hurdle gets passed simply, effectively, and without a trace of camp.

The party sequence where Romeo first spies Juliet builds nicely on that restraint. Romeo and his buddies crash a dance at Juliet’s house—which allows the boys to bounce around clumsily as adolescents would at a sock hop. Attempts to waltz quickly degenerate into a wrestling match, but when McKenzie and Borg try to actually play the scene, their dialogue blends neatly with unspoken negotiations over dance moves.

Then, when Romeo must kiss Juliet, Calarco finds an ingenious way to harness the homoerotic tension that’s been building up. The other boys, playing gate-crashers and Juliet’s relatives, try to pull them apart—which is appropriate in the play’s context but can also be read as adolescent panic about boy-kissing. McKenzie and Borg seem equally freaked, so they sit back-to-back as they play the scene, turning awkwardly toward each other while keeping an eye out for hostile reactions. Because that’s precisely what nervous lovers from warring clans would do if they feared discovery, the moment ends up playing just as it usually does while simultaneously suggesting the tryst of a furtive gay couple keeping an eye out for homophobes.

Scene after scene gets transformed in this way, and Calarco is smart about breaking the mood on occasion so he can keep breaking the rules. A thunderstorm, for instance, allows a brief respite from the looming tragedy at just the right moment, with Dan Covey’s lighting so persuasive that you can practically feel the breeze when one of the boys throws open a window in Tony Cisek’s gothic setting.

Later, emotional extremes snap together when a barked stage direction (“Enter Nurse”) requires an actor to transform himself from hotheaded Tybalt to limping lovers’ ally in an instant. All four of the actors, incidentally, are adept chameleons and almost frighteningly energetic as they hurl themselves into columns and slide across floors. Their fights are especially persuasive and almost invariably double-edged in context. I especially liked the way the disconnect between Catholic dogma and the “blasphemy” of two males playing a marriage scene leads to page-ripping, fistfights, and, finally, a compromise of sorts: the substitution of a sonnet for wedding vows.

Calarco finds plenty of other ways to keep his conceit revelatory and theatrical right up through intermission, though after the break, he seems to sense that the plot has kicked in, and he switches gears, giving us the last half of Romeo and Juliet straight, as it were. As someone who’s seen at least 20 conventional R&Js, I wish he’d kept up the extracurricular fooling around, but it’s easy to see why he’d let the Bard reassert control. Tom Stoppard did much the same thing toward the end of Shakespeare in Love. And why not? The plot does work pretty well, after all.

Eugene O’Neill’s two-hander, Hughie, is more a 55-minute character sketch than a play, but, as John MacDonald’s effortlessly

entertaining staging for Washington Stage Guild establishes with its first few wordless moments, character counts for a lot.

The production, which plays on off-nights at Source Theatre, is about a down-but-not-quite-out gambler named Erie (Rick Foucheux) who has, for years, staved off retiring each night to his room in a dilapidated flophouse by hanging out with Hughie, the night clerk. We meet him in the wee hours of the morning, the week after Hughie’s funeral. He is, you might say, breaking in a new night clerk (Morgan Duncan), employing all the conversational tricks at his command—lying, cajoling, joking, wheedling, betting, charming, and telling the tallest tales this side of Damon Runyon.

The clerk, for the most part, ignores him. No, that’s not right. As Duncan plays him, the clerk does his level best to accommodate Erie without ever indicating the least interest in him. He looks at Erie, listens to his stories, tries to figure out what the hell is expected, and—to the very limit of his ability—strives to satisfy Erie’s needs while wearing a sublimely funny blankness that suggests he’s neither a fool nor the sharpest tool in the shed. It’s a terrific performance.

Foucheux, meanwhile, is playing Erie with a drunk’s stagger and loads of devil-may-care desperation. Talking about his romances with “frails from the Follies,” he reminded me briefly of Jason Robards, and not just because he’s an unshaven, middle-aged guy in a straw boater and wrinkled suit. But as Erie is rocked back on his heels by life, hanging onto a shred of self-deception as he trots out his stories one more time, Foucheux makes him a more amusing loser than Robards would. The play is surprisingly funny for an evening about a sucker who feels “lower than a snake’s belly,” and not a little haunting, too. CP