Signature Theatre stages brilliant, bracing 'Shakespeare's R&J'

In its nearly two dozen years, Signature Theatre has presented a rich variety of works, but none by the Bard -- not that there's anything wrong with that. The Tony Award-winning company has now taken the plunge in a terrific way.

"Shakespeare's R&J" examines the star-crossed lovers of Verona through the unexpected prism of a repressive, all-male Catholic boarding school. This brilliant and provocative work, created by Joe Calarco, first appeared in the late 1990s and has been widely performed since.Calarco recently revised the piece, and that new version is receiving its North American premiere in a bracing, in-the-round production that he has directed with considerable flair.

The piece is wonderfully minimalist -- just four actors (the characters are unnamed), no set or costumes (save for preppy school uniforms), hardly any props (a long red cloth gets versatile use). The attention here is all on text and subtext.The students are ... overloaded on rote-learning of things like Latin (the recitation of "amo, amas, amat" sounds strangely menacing), math and absurd lessons in the differences between the sexes. Clandestinely and gleefully, they break out a copy of "Romeo and Juliet," as if it were stashed-away porn, and begin to immerse themselves in the world of teen love, anguish and bravado. They divvy up the parts and, bit by bit, slip fully into character.

The comic and suggestive lines in Shakespeare's text get the amusingly crude delivery you would expect from teenage males. Each shift toward tragedy seems freshly compelling. And what of the love story? Sure, boys played the female roles in Shakespeare's time, but that's not what this version is about; there is no imitation of a girlish voice or physical mannerism for Juliet.

Here, the dangerous situation Romeo and Juliet are in, defying the rules of their strictly demarcated society, is reinforced by the sight of two young men embracing those roles. The distinctions between play-acting and reality blur just enough to shake up everything.Calarco neither pushes nor avoids homo-eroticism as the work proceeds. He merely puts an extra current in the air, adding one more dimension to a familiar tale of forbidden love that unfolds in an environment where that tale itself is forbidden.

As the students reach the end of their Shakespearean escape (references to "A Midsummer Night's" and the sonnets also pass tellingly through the piece) and prepare to return to the conformist, faceless grind, the Romeo hesitates. He is not ready to break the bond formed with his Juliet.

It's a brief, exceptionally poignant moment. On one level, it speaks to the issue of teens struggling with same-sex attraction, of course, but it's more about how all parting -- of friends, lovers, expectations, dreams -- is such (bitter)sweet sorrow. Calareco gets admirable, finely polished work from the cast.

Alex Mills leaps into the Romeo role with a disarming naturalness, matched by Jefferson Farber's vibrant take on Juliet. Rex Daugherty does colorful, nuanced work throughout, especially when portraying the Nurse. Joel David Santner completes the quartet in dynamic form.

Between them, scenic designer James Kronzer and lighting designer Chris Lee create visual magic at key moments, adding exquisitely expressive layers to the proceedings. Matt Rowe's sound design plays a valuable role, too. But the most compelling sound -- other than the potent delivery of Shakespeare's language -- comes each time the students stop suddenly to gasp loudly for air, as if preparing to dive into deep, scary water.

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