Truth be told, I’m not a fan of Romeo and Juliet. Most of us were force-fed that particular Shakespearean drama in school, then graduated from ill-conceived high-school productions only to be beaten over the head with every ilk of remake.
But Shakespeare’s R&J as reimagined by Joe Calarco, now showing at North Carolina Stage Company, is another story. This breathlessly action-packed, in-your-face rendition sends the well-traveled play into previously untraversed territory.
The secret lives of thespians
Okay, so it’s not exactly new. NC Stage opened four years ago with the same production. Three of the four actors in this season’s performance were in the earlier cast. And the lines themselves are culled, for the most part, from the original version. There’s no modern lingo, no Sharks and Jets.
Here’s the setup, brought to light on a stark set with a minimalist script: Four prep-school boys discover the play and — escaping the daily brainwashing of lessons, prayers and the mantra “thou shalt not” — act it out in secret. The four boys perform all of Shakespeare’s characters, moving fluidly from one to the next without missing a beat or dropping an Elizabethan phrase.
At the onset, questions arise. Like, why would four prep-school boys even want to mess around with Shakespeare? And how is an audience member less than intimately acquainted with the play supposed to keep all these characters straight when each is being acted by a guy in a crested blazer and crew cut? In essence, it’s a play within a play: Actors Chris Allison, Nathan Crocker, Jonathan Frappier and Willie Repoley play boys playing Romeo and Juliet. Confusing, no?
Actually, no. And that’s part of the beauty of R&J. As the show progresses, the actors polish their characters. Wordplay and innuendo are brought to light (e.g.: ” … it pricks like [a] thorn” takes on new meanings in an all-male cast) and a simple red shawl is transformed into a cloak, a ring, a goblet, a dagger.
But here’s the part sure to catch even the most oblivious viewer’s attention: When you’ve got four dudes putting on a guy-girl love story, someone’s gotta play the chick.
As the female characters enter into the plot, the guys at first overplay their feminine characteristics to great comic effect — mincing about, delivering lines in campy falsetto. But when Frappier appears as a sober Juliet, the others follow his lead, taking the women’s roles seriously.
From that point, the chemistry between Romeo (Allison) and Juliet builds, at first awkwardly but finally so palpable the other students begin to break out of their Shakespearean parts to contest the attraction between the leads.
Yes, there is kissing — and it’s pretty hot.
Because the audience already knows the thrust of Romeo and Juliet, this production leaves viewers not wondering so much where the plot leads but if there will be any guy-on-guy action — which is what the show wants of us, because it’s at these pinnacles that the play-within-a-play undoes itself, juxtaposing homoeroticism against homophobia.
And, in a world where same-sex couples are so often seen as unsavory, the metaphor of a love shunned by society because the couple comes from feuding families isn’t such a stretch.
Which is why audiences walk away from NC Stage’s brilliantly acted R&J feeling like they’ve seen this age-old story for perhaps the first time.
Shakespeare’s R&J runs through Sunday, May 7. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at North Carolina Stage Company (enter across from Zambra on Walnut Street). Tickets range $12-$22. Call 350-9090 for info or see ncstage.org.