Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Shakespeare’s R&J"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by Joe Calarco
directed by Barlow Adamson

Student 1; Romeo; etc. … Adam Soule
Student 2; Juliet; etc. … Spencer S. Christie
Student 3; Mercutio; Friar Lawrence; etc. … Tyler Hollinger
Student 4; Nurse; Tybalt; etc. … Jeremy Johnson

The greatest gift a director can give an actor is to make him feel relaxed onstage; when I say “actor”, here, I mean male actors, who have more obstacles to overcome than actresses. Whenever an actress steps onto a stage, one sees a woman who has been acting for much of her life due to roles imposed on her by society and the degree of her own attractiveness; she is used to being looked at --- and wants to be looked at --- and will display herself, accordingly. A male actor may have similar needs but must deal with society’s old prejudice that putting on make-up and pretending to be someone else is a hell of a way for a man to earn a living (unless he is a Star, with a Star’s salary). His own conditioning is based, as with most men, on suppressing his finer emotions which are the very tools of his craft and much time and effort may be spent in gathering them back to him again. It takes courage for an actor to be vulnerable in his art --- he risks being deemed weak or effeminate --- and needs to be gentled into subjects that mainstream audiences cannot easily or willingly accept such as tenderness, affectionate or passionate, among members of the male sex; the world still rumbles whenever a man embraces or kisses another man, onstage or in public. The director should --- must! --- be comfortable with the material him/herself and relax his/her actors who in turn, must relax their audience --- when all is in sync, what is deemed shocking comes off as natural and healthy. Actor-director Barlow Adamson and Mill 6 Theatre Cooperative have accomplished this feat rather well with the New England premiere of Joe Calarco’s award-winning SHAKESPEARE’S R & J at the Devanaugh Theatre --- theirs is a good production and, in turn, good Shakespeare.

Mr. Calarco’s play is a condensed version of Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET as performed in secret by four (presumably British) schoolboys. There is an overture-montage, punctuated with school alarms, depicting how these boys are being rigidly shaped for manhood while their hearts and souls are left untouched. Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers becomes their springboard for venting against established authorities and their own self-discoveries, occasionally shattered by their rigid conditioning: at the Capulet’s ball, none of the boys dance together, murmuring “Thou shalt not”; “Friar Lawrence” (jealously?) breaks up the nuptials for fear things are going too far, romance-wise; etc. Mr. Calarco’s concept --- notice, for once, that I do not say “gimmick” --- works on several levels: ROMEO AND JULIET is a youthful tragedy, mirroring the agonies and ecstasies of these studients; the traditional British school segregation of the sexes creates miniature societies with its own rules, pecking orders and same-sex infatuations; and, finally, the audience gets to see some Shakespeare performed in period, i.e., with an all-male cast on a bare stage (the boys wear their school uniforms, throughout), the only prop being a long, red winding sheet that becomes the fifth member of the ensemble. I have my quibbles: in reality, these boys would probably meet in private to smoke, drink or do naughty things rather than act out a tragedy which would be taught to them in class; and why does “Romeo” choose this particular play? To explore his own repressed feelings for his “Juliet”? But, again, these are quibbles --- “Romeo”, left alone at the end, comforts himself with a minor glory: for one brief evening, he and his schoolmates dared to dream --- to quote Tennessee Williams, “the violets have broken through the rocks”.

I am not familiar with Mr. Calarco’s script so I cannot say if Mr. Adamson has been faithful to the playwright’s intentions or inspired in his choice of actors --- or both. His four students are well-contrasted: “Romeo” alternates between dreams and sulks; “Juliet” is an easygoing sidekick; “Mercutio/Friar Lawrence” is a good-natured bully who enjoys tormenting “Nurse/Tybalt” who is alternately shy and sly. Mr. Adamson, a fine actor himself, is an intriguing combination of gentleness and male armor as witnessed in his last two performances: the 19th century cop in HAYMARKET who cannot express his attraction to one woman but knows how to brutally handle another, and Amanda’s conservative husband in PRIVATE LIVES who puts up his dukes to Elyot not because he wants to but because he feels he should. These same qualities are reflected in his actors, who convince both as schoolboys and as budding thespians without resorting to shtick or camp. The performance is rough-and-tumble which is as it should be --- SHAKESPEARE’S R & J would indeed become a gimmick if these boys suddenly turned into polished professionals --- but the beauty of Mr. Adamson’s production grows not only out of Shakespeare’s verse but also from the boys’ personalities: thus, the lovers’ first kiss could very well be their own; when “Romeo” and “Mercutio” affectionately spar, it is also the dreamer and the bully wrestling on the ground; the bridal bed is a deepening of both the lovers and the two boys' relationship; the elders are presented in the style of a child imitating his parents. The performance also has it soaring moments and makes me realize that many Shakespearean actresses lack the lungpower to sustain them through an entire evening and end up shrieking or congesting, whereas Mr. Adamson’s actors can blow hot or cold and still remain intelligible.

Adam Soule is appropriately boyish and good-looking as Romeo and subtly weds the two halves of Romeo’s character: Juliet’s lover and Mercutio’s chum --- many an actor, by nature or personal choice, favors one half and slights the other; his mourning over Juliet in her death-sleep is surprisingly moving. Spencer S. Christie must evoke a young girl in love while wearing a school tie and sweater vest; his Juliet simpers now and then but on the whole Mr. Christie captures her spirit by approaching Mr. Soule’s Romeo in wide-eyed reverence and with caution --- this is a tale of forbidden love, remember --- thanks to Mr. Adamson’s guidance, Mr. Christie is not abashed at being another boy’s love object, especially with the audience only inches away from their smooches. Tyler Hollinger’s Mercutio grows tiresome --- a bear, escaped from its cage --- but his natural burliness turns Friar Lawrence into an equally burly old peasant, surprising harsh when Romeo seeks him out after killing Tybalt; his dowager Lady Capulet is a dignified hoot. The most exquisite characterization comes from Jeremy Johnson whose Nurse is a sour-faced scold: when she seeks the murderer Romeo out, she clearly disapproves of him and shows it in her bearing but continues to play the go-between --- a fascinating variation. These four actors are satisfying proof that Mr. Adamson may be the right director to take one giant step and stage a Boston-area first: an all-male Shakespearean production, in period costume and without apology, with an ensemble as well gentled-in as his current quartet.

"Shakespeare’s R&J" (12-27 March)
Devanaugh Theatre/Piano Factory Building, 791 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 240-6317

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide