In Joe Calarco’s “R&J,” four students at an ultrastrict Catholic boy’s high school ditch their dreaded Latin conjugations, take out their hidden copy of “Romeo and Juliet” and act out the story among themselves. In this rigid environment, Shakespeare’s play is forbidden, just like the love between the title characters in a dangerous Verona dominated by two feuding clans. The result is an interesting twist on gender and sexuality that circles back to the tradition of boys playing female roles in Shakespearean times.
J. Daniel Herring, chair of Fresno State’s theater department, directs Joe Calarco’s unusual and provocative 1999 adaptation in a CURTAIN 5 TheatreGROUP production opening Friday, Aug. 11, at Fresno Soap Co. The one-weekend run is just four performances, and limited tickets are available. (Opening night is already sold out.)
I caught up with Herring via email to talk about the production.
Q: I’m curious about your own backstory with Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Do you remember the first time you saw or read the play? What do you remember about that? If you were a teenager at the time, do you think your age had an impact on your reaction?
A: What I remember most about my first exposure to “Romeo and Juliet” was the fact that they were so in love and that the idea of not being together was unimaginable to them. I think at that time in my life I had never fallen in love and perhaps thought they were a bit silly. Later in life, when my heart was broken for the first time then I understood more clearly their emotional state.
Q: The four boys in “R&J” attend a very strict school. Tell us a little about the setting and why it’s important that their environment is so restrictive and even dangerous.
A: The setting provides a danger because the boys have been taught what is “right” and “wrong.” They find themselves battling with their internal feelings and interpretations about what school, religion and family have set-up as the norms for correct behaviors and appropriate relationships.
Q: I read an interesting interview with the playwright in which he talked about being disappointed in traditionalist versions of the love story of “Romeo and Juliet” he’d seen over the years. He said: “I had just never seen a production of the play or any film version where the relationship didn’t come off as being incredibly sweet, and I’ve never thought of the relationship as sweet, so those interpretations never made sense to me. I’ve always seen the two of them as rather mad. But in most interpretations, the relationship never seemed sexy or dangerous, other than me being told that what they were doing was dangerous.”
What are your thoughts on this?
A: My take is that there is much in “R&J” that is about extreme passions — passion that is sometimes sexy, sometimes violent, sometimes angry and sometimes sweet. The key for me was to help the actors create playable action found in the blending together of all these passions.
Q: Talk a little about your casting for the show. What do each of your four actors bring to the roles?
A: The cast, first and foremost, needed to be age appropriate for the roles. There must be a youthful “boys will be boys” quality to this version of Romeo and Juliet. Steven Lee Weatherbee brings a thoughtful and romantic quality to Romeo while keeping an open mind about sexual attraction and love. Aaron Lowe brings a sensitive quality to Juliet while keeping her strong and determined even in the face of violence. Sam Linkowski brings a fun and “live-in-the-moment” quality to Mercutio while portraying Lady Capulet with both a nervous and stern hand. Anthony teNyenhuis adds humor with an overzealous Nurse and a bit of a modern bully quality to Tybalt.
Q: I understand that the playwright made a major change to the ending of the play just a few years ago. Is it possible to talk about this change — and the reasons for doing it — without giving anything away?
A: I will say this, the change is a nod to “Love is Love.”
Q: It seems that you want an adaptation like this to feel raw and full of discovery, reflecting the age and naivete of the characters.. But at the same time, Shakespeare’s language requires a certain degree of polish and preparation. Is it hard as director to strike a balance between the two?
A: The duality in this script is what I find most challenging and has been at the heart of our work. The boys must understand Shakespeare’s language, but sometimes the way in which they make meaning of the text is through modern and contemporary gestures and physical action that one might see on a sports field, in a locker room or at a weekend party. There are moments in the play in which they discover material for the first time and I have used techniques that an audience member might have seen in a staged reading or experienced at an improv show.
Q: What is something you learned about the original “Romeo & Juliet” by directing this play?
A: Perhaps what has been reinforced as opposed to learned is what I have always believed: Shakespeare is timeless. The themes in this play are relevant today. I would even go as far to say they are contemporary themes — passion, love, sex, abuse, bullying, acceptance, suicide, etc.
Q: Is it liberating for you as director to be involved with such a minimalist project: no set, costumes or props?
A: It is nice on occasion to get the opportunity to focus on the actor and direct a show where basically all the storytelling must come from the voices and the bodies of the actors.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away?
A: I really just want audiences to be open to new and inventive ways in which Shakespeare can be interpreted. The theater inspires and sometimes it inspires in ways we never thought about until someone brings the material to life through a unique set of eyes.
“R&J,” 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 11; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12; 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 13, Fresno Soap Co., 1470 N. Van Ness Ave. $15, $10 students in advance, $20, $15 at door.
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