If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

“ROMEO & JULIET” WITH DUDES AT THEATERWORKS

 

High school Shakespeare was never like this.  “Shakespeare’s R&J”, Joe Calarco’s inventive take on the tragic tale of “Romeo and Juliet”, has opened the 24th season at Hartford TheaterWorks.  The play was a hit off-Broadway in 1998 and seems an ideal choice for Hartford’s most adventurous theatre company.

Set in an all-boys Catholic prep school where Latin lessons and strict regimentation is on the menu (there is no year listed but it looks to be late 1960s), four young men, all dressed in identical uniforms of gray and black, take time from their studies with a secreted copy of Shakespeare’s most famous love story.  They decide to break with convention and begin to enact the script for themselves -- playing all the roles including the female ones.  It’s “Dead Poets Society” meets “Shakespeare in Love”.

Played out on a mostly empty stage with four wood chairs, a chest and a bolt of blood-red fabric that is used handily for rapiers, swords, dresses and bed linens, “Shakespeare’s R&J” has creativity to burn and offers an opportunity for four good actors to get a theatrical workout while performing a somewhat truncated version of the Bard’s great tragedy.  Calarco has also cleverly paralleled the timeless tale with homosexual repression as the boys struggle with their own hormonal tendencies and repressed desires.

What hampers this from being a superb rendering of the play instead of just a pretty good one is that the actors, under the athletic direction of Rob Ruggiero, don’t seem totally up to the task at hand.  They tend to squander much of the poetry in Shakespeare’s verse while racing to get to the juicy bits.  Youthful exuberance is fine and a requirement in any production of “Romeo and Juliet”, but not at the expense of the text. 

Adam Barrie as Romeo and Ashley Robinson as Juliet should be applauded for their fearless approach to the material – especially with the more sensual passages.  But what’s ultimately missing here is true understanding, true feeling and passion for the characters.  This is especially evident in the play’s first act when the pair is called upon to play several other roles in addition to the leads.  Taking on a variety of parts, Paul Terzenbach and TJ Linnard complete the handsome quartet adequately but never much more than that.

What really works in Hartford is Brian Prather’s bare-bones setting, Matthew Richards’ effective lighting and Vincent Oliveri’s dazzling sound.  Together they set a mood and tone that is exactly right and consistent up and until the final curtain.  This design team has no equal.  In the end, however, “Shakespeare’s R&J” remains a fascinating concept undermined by less-than-stellar performances.

 “Shakespeare’s R&J” continues at Hartford TheaterWorks through December 20th.  For further information and ticket reservations call the box office at 860.727.4027 or visit their website at:  www.theaterworkshartford.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

This review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers on 12.2.09


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