By Manning Harris
Fabrefaction Theatre Conservatory is producing Joe Calarco’s “Shakespeare’s R&J,” a vibrant retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” through March 2, directed by Brian Clowdus, Serenbe Playhouse’s artistic director.
“For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring,” says Benvolio in “Romeo and Juliet.” That line could be the touchstone for this rendering of the Bard’s timeless story of star-crossed lovers.
Calarco wonders what would happen in a strict New England Catholic all-male boarding school if four boys laid hands on a forbidden copy of Shakespeare’s play and started to read it aloud. Why is it forbidden? I’m not sure, but I know that nothing tweaks the interest and desire of hot-blooded adolescents more than forbidding them something, especially when no rationale is given.
What do you think four imaginative, testosterone-laden teenagers are more interested in—reciting aloud their Latin assignments (shades of “Spring Awakening”) or venting their passion in literature’s most famous love story?
Shakespeare understood human nature and passion better than any writer ever has. Calarco’s idea is to let the boys run with the “Romeo” script; most of the evening’s lines are Shakespeare’s; and if you like the play and have more than a passing familiarity with the lines, so much the better. If not, let these four fiery young actors (Romeo: “Fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!”) take you on a thrilling ride.
What Students 1, 2, 3, and 4 (their names in the program) discover is that they’re playing with fire: They have no inkling of the potential power of theatre, that it can even be dangerous; what they do know is how to throw themselves headlong, full-throttle into an endeavor, and the forbidden thrills they discover only make it more intoxicating.
For example: They know that nice boys in a Catholic prep school don’t kiss each other; but as the fervor of Shakespeare’s text seizes them, they are heedless; and Romeo and Juliet do kiss, defiantly, passionately, and desperately. There are no adults around to stop them—only you, dear audience, if you haven’t fainted by now.
I jest. There are four fine young professional actors to guide us here, all of whom play multiple parts (but I’ll only mention one): Kyle Brumley (Juliet); Brian Hatch (Romeo); Chase Steven Anderson (the nurse); Justin Walker (Mercutio). I hesitate to single anyone out, but I will say that Mr. Brumley’s Juliet is a particularly delicious piece of acting. There’s no trace of his “imitating a girl”; merely the slightest, delicate lightening of his voice. It works.
Now you know that “never was a story of more woe”; so I’ll just mention that the play becomes very moving. And there’s a moment when Mercutio and Tybalt are fighting and suddenly the scene starts to careen dangerously out of control into real-life, all male fighting (all of this is planned); but the boys quickly settle back into the art of the play, and their renewed respect and love for one another.
“R&J” is intensely theatrical. After the show a friend said to me, “This is really more performance art than theatre,” and my reaction was “Well, of course; it’s both!” Brian Clowdus is an enormously imaginative director, and the set design (Lauren Rondone), lighting (Kevin Frazier), and sound (Jarrett Heatherly) are all of inestimable value (although I’d probably make those school bells and at times the music a tad more forte than fortissimo). Oh—there’s a magical piece of red cloth I’ll let you discover.
Okay, it’s Shakespeare, which will frighten some away. I hope not. Instead, let these boys take you on a midnight ride, as Jim Morrison said. You’re apt to learn much, as they did, about real life, art, and love. And you may say, as Student 1 (Brian Hatch) did, in triumph and epiphany, “I dreamed!”
For tickets and information, visit fabrefaction.org.