The less theater you’ve seen in D.C. in recent years, the fresher you may find Shakespeare’s R&J, Joe Calarco’s four-man retelling of the Bard’s tragedy—set not in ancient fair Verona but in the halls of a Catholic boarding school, where a quartet of male students mounts the play late at night, playing all the parts. When R&J debuted in New York in 1997, the show may have seemed electrically illicit. But since then, nine states have legalized gay marriage. Pope Benedict has come and gone in a puff of white smoke. This is not to say the fight for equal rights is over, but when it comes to reinterpreting Shakespeare, R&J now seems nostalgic, almost quaint.
That’s not to sell short the four young men who are now exhausting themselves on Signature Theatre’s stage each night. But by its nature R&J is a reminder of how spoiled Washington audiences are when it comes to experimental Shakespeare. Theatergoers who saw Synetic’s wordless version of Romeo and Juliet—either in 2008 or as remounted last year—will not forget the breathtaking silhouettes of star-crossed lovers making love behind a rippling sheet. Upstart troupe Taffety Punk didn’t blink before staging an all-female Much Ado About Nothing, and each summer, various Fringe ensembles explore oddball Elizabethan scenarios. At Shakespeare Theatre Company, Ethan McSweeny’s elaborate design schemes are sometimes critiqued as misguided, but if you’ve got the production budget, creating a world beyond Shakespeare’s words often provides an easier point of access for a 21st century audience.
By comparison, Calarco’s production gender-bending, text-only production seems tame, and even a little dry. Few props are used in this two-hour traffic of a bare wooden stage: Just two chairs, a chest, a handful of flashlights, a long red tablecloth, and the players’ unspoken fear of forbidden love. Alex Mills, perhaps best known as the hyperflexible Puck of Synetic’s 2009 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, plays Romeo, shaking with angst from the opening of the show, when he appears scribbling love letters in a composition book. He’s soon joined by three more blazer-clad fellows, who pry loose a few planks in the stage and pull out hardbound copy of the forbidden tragedy, swaddled in scarlet fabric.
The men never stop to have a let’s-put-on-a-play discussion. They just act, with frenetic intensity. Occasionally, one hollers out a scene by number, or set. “Juliet’s Bedchamber!” announces one, before Rex Daugherty and Joel David Santner launch into campy falsetto as the nurse and mother. When Jefferson Farber, as Juliet, calls out “How now?” in baritone, Santner and Daugherty stop and stare before proceeding in their normal voices. Later, they rip a page from the play after Friar Lawrence declares the lovers man and wife, and turn away when Mills and Farber smooch loudly in their marital bower.
When the two lovers lay down again, this time felled by poison and dagger, R&J isn’t over. For three of the four young men, there are uniform vests to don and ties to tie. Mills’ character refuses to believe, as his classmates tell him, that it was all a dream. In defiance, he climbs to the balcony and goes all Robert Sean Leonard on us. It’s a rather overwrought ending, complete with recorded, Enya-esque vocals.
For audiences who haven’t seen or read Romeo and Juliet in a while, or who long ago wrote the play off as a paean to heterosexual virility, R&J may well offer some revelations. For the rest of us, there is Synetic’s upcoming wordless production of The Tempest, or the DVD of Dead Poet’s Society.