"Shakespeare's R&J" at Hartford TheaterWorks

By Tom Nissley

Before there was Facebook, star crossed young lovers found each other with shared moments in the same room. You may remember that Romeo found Juliet, and she found him, just that way, when Romeo and his cousins crashed a party at Juliet’s house. Their eyes met, and each knew this was the one they wanted to marry! If you’ve forgotten the intensity of that quick romance, it’s available for review at Hartford Theatreworks’ new production of Joe Calarco’s "Shakespeare’s R & J."

The play takes place within the walls of a strict and rather repressive Catholic boys’ school - described only with a few memorized passages from some catechism-like instruction about how men are different from women, superior to women, and when courting women should first have joined a club, so the women will know they will not have to be bothered entertaining or being entertained by men except to wait up for them each night until midnight and roll them safely into bed when they come home from the club. It’s an amusing set-up.

Four rebels - students - survive the system by squirreling a secret copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and giving it a thorough communal reading. We don’t know how they found each other. Were they suite mates? Did they use radar? Whatever the case, they take the folio in hand and act out the roles.

And of course they get hooked on Shakespeare. They read through the entire play, showcasing most of the familiar characters. Along the way, they get what might also be described as hooked, on each other. When Romeo and Juliet, who are of course students 1 and 2, first embrace, there’s a little awkwardness (should we touch? How? OK), but as the play continues, they overcome the awkwardness and play the parts quite fully. Which is not meant to be upsetting to the audience, but in some cases may be. So playgoers have to be prepared to wrestle with the entire book of Romeo and Juliet, longer than some may remember, and also the situation of four boys, several of whom are touching and kissing while they play the play.

There are several reminders, during the show, that these guys are using a room somewhere in the school building; once in a while a bell rings, or perhaps lights flash, and almost always this signals a change in position or interrupts the staging of a scene. It helps to bring home the reality that these students have retreated in secret to do an unacceptable thing - that is to read and be influenced by "Romeo and Juliet." Their surreptitious dedication to the task is beautiful. I recalled the history of the Amateur Dramatic Club at Cambridge University, founded in 1885 by students against the will of the University dons. It stayed an illicit enterprise until the Prince of Wales became a member, and then suddenly it was an approved activity. Many famous actors have been members of that club. There is a power in theater that draws and holds its members fast. And although there does seem to be some hormonal influence in the students on stage, their real awakening appears to be to theater, and not just caresses. One brilliant piece of stagecraft has student number 3, acting as the Friar, distracted when student 1 and student 2 are waiting for him to marry them; it appears that he leaves the role and focuses his own soul’s eyes onto student 1, and then recovers and moves on. But by and large this is a straight play describing boys becoming stage-folks in a powerful way.

Other stagecraft that should be praised includes a long bolt of red fabric that is used to create the duels, the stabbings, the flow of blood, and also as an emotional wrap when student 2 is Juliet. In the tomb, it becomes her shroud. The set (Brian Prather) is sparse and works beautifully. Matthew Richard’s lighting and Vincent Olivers’s sounds are integral parts of the production. But what will impress you beyond usual words of praise is the vibrant performance of Students 1-4, Adam Barrie, Ashley Robinson, Paul Terzenbach, and TJ Linnard. They work as an ensemble par excellence, with Ron Ruggerio’s direction as an anchor. Barrie’s Romeo is so well done; Robinson’s Juliet is powerful, and with the help of strong performances of Terzenbach as her mother and Linnard as the nurse he is able to show the absurd agony of Juliet’s pleading for some support against her father’s insistence that she must marry Paris. I mention that to show how thoroughly "Shakespeare’s R&J" represents the original work. If you are a fan of the bard, here’s a holiday play (through December 20) well worth the trip to Hartford.

Tickets and schedules are available at www.theaterworkshartford.org

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre

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