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.