February 7, 2002

By Any Other Name

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Romeo and Juliet, as with much of Shakespeare’s remarkable body of work, has been remade and recast, amended and adapted numerous times on stage and screen, for festivals, in parks, opera houses, symphony halls, Broadway theaters. Though until Joe Calarco came along with his creative and passionate R & J, currently playing at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre, the Bard’s tragic tale of Verona’s “star-cross’d lovers” never looked nor sounded like this.

Calarco, who got his start directing while attending Ithaca College, and later worked with the Hangar Theater (on a Drama League fellowship in 1995), has gone on to see R & J, which he adapted and directed, receive high praise and enjoy a long run Off-Broadway. The play has since been staged across the United States, and in Sydney, Australia.

R & J, though featuring an all-male cast, is not quite in following with the Elizabethan tradition, as none of the male characters ever dress in female garb. The quartet play Catholic boarding school boys, who, following a day of classes stumble upon a copy of Romeo and Juliet, a treasure (or Pandora’s box) of sorts plucked from a footlocker by stage left. Almost immediately, the boys are drawn into the tempestuous world of plagued houses, of feuding Capulets and Montagues.

The boys, played by V. Damien Carter, Jamie Engber, Dustin Sullivan and Joe Tapper, are dressed uniformly in slacks, white shirts, solid ties, and sweater vests; they are listed in the casting credits as Students 1, 2, 3 and 4 respectively. After Morning Prayer and a day’s drilling of lessons including math and Latin (conjugating the verb “to love”), they stumble upon the play. Soon after, they divvy up roles and begin acting out the parts, first wrestling and horsing around, then losing themselves in the passages, creating the play-within-a-play subtext (a structuring device often employed by Shakespeare). The adapted script’s blend of boarding school and various Verona locales displays the ambiguity. Are the boys acting out the scenes, or are they fully engulfed in the world created by the text? Are the boys homosexual, or are they so lost in their roles that gender is a non-issue?

Viewed through the eyes of the passionate and able male cast, R & J takes on a life of its own. The strength of Shakespeare’s female characters becomes evident; the roles of Juliet and the Nurse are portrayed powerfully, neither languid nor shrewish as in Charles Gounod’s opera adaptation or Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film. Calarco has previously stated his intentions to highlight this strength–noting that the performances of a male cast exhibit just how strong Shakespeare wrote female parts–even though recent adaptations have played away from this embodiment. At the most convincing of moments, the gender of the actors is forgotten as fervent emotion-driven acting alters them from schoolboys into their respective characters from Shakespeare’s drama.

Playing with notions of male friendship and homoeroticism, the uncertain relationships between the boarding school students adds intrigue to the characters they become in fair Verona. Accordingly, with the all-male cast, double entendres–“men’s eyes were made to look and I shall gaze”–take shape in an entirely new light. Calarco does take liberties with the dialog of Romeo and Juliet in his adaptation: lines are often delivered anachronistically, and are spliced with Shakespeare’s sonnets and speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At times, this textual melding seems forced and unnecessary.

The sparse stage props include two simple wooden chairs and a small bench serving as bed, table, balcony threshold, and forest hiding spot as the characters alternate between school and their meshing with the dramatic world. The four support beams to the stage’s corners are likewise utilized, drawing focal point from center stage and aiding in the creation of distinct moments of emotional intensity. A long sheet of red fabric serves as dueling sword and poison vial, wedding veil and bedding sheet to varying degrees of effectiveness. Flashlights and candles are utilized elsewhere for lighting effects. Minimally lit, the stage is often dark, fitting as the reenactment occurs mainly during nighttime hours, and in the swarthy locales of Verona.

By the conclusion of R & J, it is hard not to be impressed by Calarco’s manipulation, his ability to take a work time-tested and classic in stature and make it fresh. Unlike other adaptations of Romeo and Juliet that have a jerry-built and derivative feel, Calarco’s production has a newness that gives it a life of its own, while stirring admiration for the inspired language and character development of the play from which it was adapted.

Archived article by L. Weiss