"Shakespeare's R&J"

Joe Soriano (from left), John P. Cox, Zach Palumbo and Michael Emery Fox

Shakespeare’s tragic “Romeo and Juliet” has proven itself to be a particularly pliable and resilient piece of work.

Its story has been retold through dance by the Royal Ballet and as an opera at the Théâtre Lyrique, turned into a musical by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (“West Side Story”), and made into movies featuring zombies (“Warm Bodies”), martial artists (“Romeo Must Die”) and CGI garden figurines (“Gnomeo & Juliet”).

In Joe Calarco’s “Shakespeare’s R & J,” we are offered an abridged reimagining of "Romeo and Juliet" that seems particularly inspired by a line found in Act 2, Scene 2 of the original text – “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books” – for this tale is told by four boys late at night in the dormitory of a repressive Catholic boarding school.

The play, which opened Off-Broadway in 1998 and is currently on stage at convergence-continuum, finds the boys reading Shakespeare's text about infatuation, sexual awakening and forbidden love aloud and with the giddy enthusiasm of youth. But they are also living these words, for one of the schoolboys (Zach Palumbo as Romeo) falls for another (Michael Emery Fox as Juliet), causing tension and anger among their colluding classmates (Joe Soriano as Mercutio and others, and John P. Cox as Nurse and others). 

This is an interesting conceit, but the play gets a rather muddled and often careless production at con-con under Cory Molner’s direction.

One reason why is that three of these four performers (Palumbo is the exception) need to brush up their Shakespeare, for they give flat and often empty speed-readings of the dialogue. Their task is certainly made more difficult by having to deliver classic text as contemporary teens pretending to be Shakespeare characters rather than as the characters themselves, but the play's the thing and its effective presentation needs to be mastered.  

The four also seem to have been given little or ill-advised guidance as to just when they are to be reading from the well-worn tome they had hidden under a floorboard and when they are to recite the words from memory, as if already familiar with the text and seemingly lost in it.  The worlds of Shakespeare's play and that of Calarco’s seem to overlap without much rhyme or reason.   

And, when reading from the book, no attention is paid to where in the book the boys are reading.  The prologue that sets up the tragedy, the epilogue that tells us that “for never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo,” and all parts in between seem to be found wherever the book just happens to be opened.

Also awkwardly handled is the boys’ homosexuality. It is unclear in this production whether the portrayers of Romeo and Juliet only realize their feelings for one another once their characters meet -- which mirrors the experience of Shakespeare’s characters -- or whether the boys are using this play as an opportunity or excuse to revisit their shared affections. There is neither discovery, familiarity nor much passion in their kisses to guide our understanding of what is happening here.

Careless, too, is the handling of the red cloth the boys employ as a prop during their reading, which is intended by the playwright to symbolize death. During the tragic fight between Tybalt and Mercutio and in Romeo’s revenge, it is used in a tug of war in the place of weaponry. When it is used as the bedsheet on Romeo and Juliet’s wedding night, it foretells of the young lovers’ tragic destiny and it is used to represent the poison that ends their lives. But, in this production, Cox as Nurse also uses it for a character-defining shawl, which seems to miss the point of the prop.

Scott Zolkowski’s scenic design includes a huge stained glass window on the back wall to help establish the Catholic school setting. And he offers only a vague impression of a dormitory, which effectively facilitates the play-within-a-play transitions.  Those transitions are nicely complemented by the haunting thunder, spoken dialogue and disembodied laughter worked into Beau Reinker’s soundscape and the lightning and flashlight beams that are part of Eva Nel Brettrager’s lighting design.

“Shakespeare’s R & J” is an intriguing addition to an ever-expanding Bard-inspired canon. Its lengthy run Off-Broadway suggests that it is a far better play than what con-con has put into production.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio SPJ best critic.

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