Something very special is happening at Signature Theatre in Arlington.
In the current Shakespeare’s R & J, Joe Calarco is giving an urgent, arresting production of his genius recasting of the Bard’s great romantic tragedy as a forbidden text in a repressed Catholic boarding school. The marching feet of the young regimented students in their ties and blazers make way for some breathless all night reading of a coveted, contraband volume of Romeo and Juliet. Quite naturally, of course, the classic tale of forbidden love between the Capulets and Montegues of four centuries past is made more vivid and immediate when translated into a boarding school where equally forbidden same sex attractions spark.
The banned text is literally buried in the floorboards of the constricted school, which is otherwise awash in Latin chants and testaments. Quite naturally, they would be drawn to and affected deeply by the text that both extols love and cries out against the prejudices and barriers all round.
There’s no way to get around the powerful impact of the production, starting with uniformly strong and moving performances from the cast of four Rex Daughterty, Alex Mills, Jefferson Faber, and Joel David Santer, working together as if, well, they’ve been schoolmates for years. They read the play out of curiosity, heightened by its forbidden nature and delve deeply into its characters, throwing the textbook around the stage, consulting it repeatedly, double checking its charged declarations of love, celebrating it fully as part of a maturing process and eventually mourn loss – of the text itself, as well as the hothouse affair it inspires.
… the thunderous can’t-miss production isn’t merely adapting the famous text, but fully realizing it in a new century.
Directing a revised version of his own acclaimed play, which is receiving its North American premiere here, Calarco amps up the power and immediacy further by presenting the play in the round. It’s not only the first play to be staged in the round in the 23 year history of the Signature, it’s also the first time, surprisingly, the theater has ever done Shakespeare – a surprise at a time when it seems half the shows in town are drawn from him.
But rare is the revival that is angled such that it shines such a light on current conditions even as it sets what was thought as a familiar text into a fire.
Among its many simple artistic flourishes is a waving bolt of red fabric that serves as designated blood, flare, and emotion as needed. The details of the wooden platform of the stage, echoed by the crown molding above depict not only the halls of a hallowed school, but can convert with a dazzling turn into a candlelit safe zone for love. The nimble actors use the surrounding balconies and stairs to their benefit as well.
The pleasures of James Kronzer’s set and Chris Lee’s vivid lighting design (using flashlight as one point) are echoed by a Matt Rowe sound design in which the flutters of a lark’s wing make their mark.
It’s almost as if the thunderous can’t-miss production isn’t merely adapting the famous text, but fully realizing it in a new century.
Running time: Two hours with one fifteen minute intermission.
Shakespeare’s R&J runs through March 2 at the Signature Theatre,1300 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. Tickets are available at 700573 SEAT or here.