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Joe Calarco professes not to worry about expectations. It’s not as if he’s engaged in Middle Eastern diplomacy, after all.
He’s just directing a playNijinsky’s Last Dance, a Signature Theatre premiere from Norman Allen, the local writer whose Melville Slept Here drew respectable notices last year.
But Signature, what with its Cameron Mackintosh connections and its Kander & Ebb collaborations, has drawn more national attention in the past couple of years than just about any other Washington theater. And given Calarco’s last directorial outinga hastily conceived little off-off-Broadway adaptation called Shakespeare’s R&Jthere may be more heavyweight interest in Nijinsky than is usual even for Eric Schaeffer’s dynamic little company.
Simple and intensely theatrical, R&J is still playing at New York’s John Houseman Studio Theatre more than a year after its first performances at a tiny downtown space. It’s Romeo and Juliet reconceived: Four actors in identical parochial-school uniforms perform Shakespeare’s tragedy for each other in secret; their regimented surroundings constrain and compress the play’s passions, with incendiary results. A glowing Time Out review and sensational word of mouth led to a mention in the New York Times, then to the descent of producers offering backing. When the show reopened off Broadway at the Houseman, reviews in the Times and other national outlets confirmed R&J as a smash. And when, in early June, it became the longest-running production of Romeo and Juliet ever staged in New York, even Calarco, still working his day job at the Carlyle Hotel’s front desk, began to believe the reviews: “I thought maybe we’d make it to Memorial Day.”
All R&J’s success has really done, he says, is make it easier for him to get the attention of somebody as busy as, say, Signature’s artistic director Schaeffer. “It allows you to get meetings. But people thought I was making a ton of money, and George C. Wolfe was pounding on my door to come do something at the Public [Theater]and it wasn’t true. At all.”
And there are drawbacks. “I’m a perfectionist and a control freak. With R&J downtown, I ran the lights some nights. To suddenly have a lot of people taking care of things for you…there’s a little bit of a loss of control.” Despite his credit as adapter, he has no say over the licensing of R&J productions, for instance.
Still, it’s “unbelievable to see your name in the New York Times…to be able to quit the day job, to be able to say, ‘I’m a director and a writer, and I make a living at it.’” Calarco, a 30-year-old Rochester, N.Y., native, doesn’t usually like to work with new plays other than his ownhaving the writer on hand can be “a very difficult situation,” he says drylybut the intriguingly structured Nijinsky, despite major cuts and rewrites, has been an “amazingly positive” experience. “Norman is a very good writer,” says Calarco. “It’s a shock when you get a new play that’s well written.”Trey Graham