Blink and you might miss the stellar “R&J,” a CURTAIN 5 TheatreGROUP production at the Fresno Soap Co., which finishes up its brief one-weekend run with a 7:30 performance tonight (Saturday, Aug. 12) and a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Aug. 13. This intriguing adaptation by Joe Calarco of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” imagines four boys in a strict Catholic high school who perform their own modified version of the tragedy after hours. Having a male play the role of Juliet adds a gay angle to the storyline — and it’s one that’s amplified and celebrated — but it’s also an interesting nod to the tradition of having young boys play female roles in Shakespearean times.
Director J. Daniel Herring creates two snugly believable worlds on stage using nothing more than a few wooden benches, a bright-red tablecloth and a smattering of hasty props used by the boys, including a bottle of what looks like prescription cough syrup for Romeo’s death scene. There’s the school itself, squared off by those benches, in which order and discipline prevail. And there’s the Verona of the play, a Wild West of two warring families, in which love seems bigger and danger seems brasher than anything a bored schoolboy could ever imagine. One of the most fascinating things for me is when the two worlds of the play bump into and bleed into each other. In the heady moments of love at first sight between Romeo (Steven Lee Weatherbee) and Juliet (Aaron Lowe), the reaction of the other two actors on stage (Sam Linkowski and Anthony teNyenhuis) is hard to pin down: Is the taboo they’re reacting to the scandal of a Montague falling for a Capulet, and vice versa? Or is it the realization that same-sex attraction is part of their schoolboy circle? At what point are these characters participants in a Shakespearean drama and when are they standing outside it, projecting their own contemporary attitudes onto the moment? It’s the ambiguity of it all that keeps things taut and engaging.
Each cast member shines at different moments. Weatherbee is an earnest Romeo with a sort of worry-wart sheen, which I found endearing. Lowe finds a grace and dignity to Juliet without a hint of camp. teNyenhuis gets a grand, over-the-top character in the aches and pains of the doting Nurse. And Sam Linkowski is terrific in a variety of roles, including Mercutio and Lady Capulet, switching from one to the other with ease. (His touch in the wedding scene is simply beautiful.) Herring switches from brisk to tender in a heartbeat, and he has coaxed some very strong performances from his talented cast.
It took me too long to fall into the believability of the production. The students seem just a little too peppy at first, too effortlessly rambunctious and jocular, as if they’re, well, characters in a high-concept play. But then things click. In the end, Calarco’s most significant accomplishment is pulling off the premise that modern-day high school students would be so taken with Shakespeare that they would put together their own impromptu production, illicitly, and do it with such depth of feeling and emotional investment that it transports an audience to another time and place. I believed this Romeo and Juliet are so much in love they’re willing to die for each other. Straight or gay, 21st century or Elizabethan times, that’s a storyline that never goes out of fashion.
These star-crossed lovers go to the same school: An intriguing adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” at Fresno Soap Co. puts a new spin on a classic
“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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