Shakespeare’s R&J. – John Houseman Studio Theatre, New York, New York – theater reviews
Here is high-concept Shakespeare at its starkest: Four boarding-school buddies — equipped with only three black boxes and a vermilion cloth — conduct a clandestine after-hours ritual, with Romeo and Juliet as their sacred text. One lad (Greg Shamie) casts the spell with Puck’s speech to the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then takes the role of Romeo. The others join in, boisterous at first. But the game shifts gears when another boy (Daniel J. Shore) decides to play Juliet seriously. The others (Sean Dugan and Danny Gurwin) fall into line, nimbly assuming all the other roles.
What then unfolds is the essence of theatrical magic. You’re looking at four guys in gray sweaters and slacks, yet you’re having a remarkably complete experience of Shakespeare’s tragic tale of star-crossed lovers. Adapter-director Joe Calarco makes many bold choices, some of which fall flat, but it’s amazing how many fly and how much of the play’s poetry pierces through the prep-school framework. The ritual becomes a safe space for two young men to try out their gay wings. No boy-girl love scene today could be quite as fraught with emotion as these lovers’ first kiss. Any gay spectator will recognize the heart-pounding terror and glimpse of freedom as this Romeo whispers, “O trespass sweetly urged! Give me my sin again.”
There are times when the production really looks like schoolboy Shakespeare, usually during some tedious wrangling with that infernal red cloth. And there’s nothing as fabulous as the moment in Baz Luhrmann’s film version when Mercutio shows up at the masked ball in drag. But the tone of the piece approaches another cinematic Shakespeare landmark, Derek Jarman’s The Angelic Conversation, in which Judi Dench recites the sonnets over footage of burning candles and boys doing cryptic things in alleyways.
The most poignant moment of R&J is the final scene, an all-too-familiar tableau of queer adolescent angst. When the bell rings, the other boys march off to class, and Shamie is left onstage with the despairing realization that for them — even for Shore as his Juliet — this passion play was just for fun, a schoolboy crush. He alone was playing it for real.
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