Star-crossed love is not the exclusive domain of the houses of Montague and Capulet. In Joe Calarco’s deconstruction of the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet called Shakespeare’s R&J, two male students in a strict Catholic boarding school encounter passions of their own as they and two fellow scholars act out the timeless romantic tragedy.
It’s an idea whose novelty wears off quickly, reducing this production at Cygnet Theatre to a stripped-down (few props, only four actors, no ornate costumes) Romeo and Juliet. There’s nothing particularly startling about an all-male Romeo and Juliet if you know anything about the way in which Shakespeare’s plays were originally staged. Shakespeare’s R&J’s story-within-the-story about the oppressed students is what’s most intriguing here, and there’s simply not enough of it. You want to know much more about these four young men. Not merely that they know their Latin and their higher math. Not just that they know their Ten Commandments and how to recite them robotically. To discover that they have a revealing connection to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet does not necessitate their clandestine enactment of the entire play, regardless of their ingenuity in pulling it off.
There is plenty of ingenuity, thanks to director George Ye and the inexhaustible cast (Christian Daly, Tyler Lea, Dave Thomas Brown and John Evans Reese). Objects as elementary as flashlights and a wispy strip of red fabric stand in for light, swords and blood, and the students’ uniforms are cleverly utilized to suggest changes of character (everyone plays multiple roles).
As Shakespeare’s R&J nears its conclusion, you may begin to wonder how you sat through all those Romeo and Juliets in your past and why the balcony scene gets so much pub. The original play is a pretext here, a vehicle for adolescent rebellion and recognition of truths and desires. This, however, is understood almost from the opening scene. It may not be what Joe Calarco had in mind, but you can’t help but want one of the emoting students to break character and share another, more personal story than one we’ve seen and heard so many times before.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.