Boys will be boys

The well-worn lines will seem familiar to anyone who ever trekked through Romeo and Juliet in high-school English class: Parting is such sweet sorrow/That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

But delivered by New York actor Ramon de Ocampo, the wistful words of Juliet Capulet promise multiple levels of meaning in a radical retooling of the Bard’s classic tale of tragic love.

A play within a play, Shakespeare’s R&J presents the story of four boys at a rigid prep school where even the reading of Shakespeare is forbidden. In a pact of rebellion, the boys pull out a hidden copy of Romeo and Juliet and secretly act out all the roles — all the while becoming more intimately bound up in the unfolding story.

The play, adapted by Joe Calarco, marks the inaugural production of the North Carolina Stage Company in its new 99-seat theater housed in the basement of the Earth Guild Building on Haywood Street in downtown Asheville.

The husband/wife team of Charlie and Angie Flynn-McIver (self-confessed “Shakespeare geeks”) founded the not-for-profit professional theater company in September.

“We want to share our love of Shakespeare with as many people as we can,” declares Angie, who (like her husband) immediately becomes more animated when describing the playwright’s timeless, vibrant appeal. “I was blown away that this play made the story fresh in a way I hadn’t even considered.”

That enthusiasm carries through to the cast, which also features Chris Allison and William Repoley, both of Asheville, and Jonathan Frappier of Winston-Salem.

“I just feel like the challenge of a new theater company is to do challenging work that stimulates the taste glands of the brain to help you think, not only as an actor, but as an audience,” Ocampo offers. “It’s really brutally exciting work, this play.”

That energy came through during rehearsals last week as the group honed a comic scene in which Repoley (as Student 3, playing Mercutio) declares: “For the bawdy hand of the dial is now on the prick of noon.”

Allison (as Student 4, playing the Nurse) grabs Repoley’s crotch to counter with a devilish “What a man are you?”

A few moments later, Allison and Frappier collide in a belly-bumping embrace.

Testing boundaries

“This is not a ‘gay’ play,” jokes Allison during a break.

Yet the prospect of men playing boys acting out both men and women’s roles does beg the question — especially when key moments in the play include several passionate kisses between the boys playing Romeo and Juliet (Students 1 and 2) that hint at their growing feelings for one another, and a near fight breaking out when Students 3 and 4 attempt to take over the parts of the star-crossed lovers.

Calarco addressed the issue himself in his notes on the play. Shakespeare’s R&J was created as a workshop project in 1997 and was later performed off-Broadway to glowing national reviews.Calarco writes: “This is a play about men. It is about how men interact with other men. Thus it deals with how men view women, sex, sexuality and violence. This play is not, nor should any production of it, be strictly about homoeroticism. Nor should it be strictly about homophobia. …

“I also told my actors that I thought the strongest choice was to make the students heterosexual. To me it makes the aversion to male romantic love more palpable. It also makes the students’ acceptance of a definition of love without boundaries more moving and monumental,” Calarco notes.

Angie and Charlie have followed Calarco’s lead. To label it a gay play seems “reductive and knee-jerky,” suggests Charlie (noting that he’s not even sure what a “gay play” is).

“The point for me is that it’s so much more than that,” offers Angie.

The Flynn-McIvers chose Shakespeare’s R&J as their first production because it seemed both exciting and manageable. Angie had already directed the play last spring for the Vermont Stage Company. Plus, the Spartan endeavor calls for virtually no set (except for four wooden boxes) and no props other than a piece of red cloth.

The two North Carolina natives ooze experience, developed over years of New York City theater work. Among other credits, Angie (originally from Charlotte) worked as assistant director on the Broadway production of Sacrilege, starring Ellen Burstyn and Giancarlo Esposito. She also created and ran the National Shakespeare Company’s education department. Charlie grew up in Durham, earned an M.F.A. in acting at UNC-Chapel Hill, and went on to appear in various off-Broadway productions. He also toured nationally with the Broadway production of Wit, starting Judith Light.

While in New York, the two independently harbored dreams of launching a professional theater company in Asheville — a tidbit they shared on their first date (on New Year’s Day 1999). Though neither was inclined to put much stock in fate, the coincidence was something they couldn’t ignore.

“We felt like we were smacked in the head with it,” says Charlie.

“It was pretty intense,” agrees Angie.

After their research revealed that Asheville didn’t have a professional theater company, they set about to make their dream a reality. They’ve already raised about two-thirds of the $150,000 they estimate will be needed during the company’s first two years.

With Charlie as artistic director and Angie as producing director, they plan to present theater year-round, with a focus on classical plays. They also want to help develop future audiences via arts-education programs. So far, the company has partnered with three local schools, including the Francine Delaney New School for Children, where Charlie teaches drama classes once a week as the charter school’s artist in residence.

The two are hoping that their “Pay-What-You-Can” Thursdays and the reduced ticket prices for theatergoers under 30 will also pull in younger people who haven’t yet acquired the theater habit.

On a personal note, the couple is also embarking on another new venture: Their first child is due in June.

“Our baby likes Shakespeare, too,” Charlie says fondly.

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