A revised version of a modestly staged piece Calarco first adapted and directed in New York in 1997, the play takes hold even more grippingly now, courtesy of some script refinements and showier design elements. The breath-stopping lighting by Chris Lee turns columns of beams into glittering curtains. Set designer James Kronzer, meanwhile, comes up with a heavenly frame for a pivotal scene that intensifies the incandescent flicker of romance.
Because, yes, this is an account of young love, unfolding on two levels at the same time. While large portions of Shakespeare’s tragedy are recited — interspersed with lines from his sonnets and bits of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — the “Romeo and Juliet” enacted on this occasion is a means to a forbidden end. It’s the vehicle by which two stifled young men reveal their passion for each other to each other.
The challenge of telling this story is the responsibility of the four young actors who assume all the roles in the play-within-a-play. They are the extremely propulsive and likable gang of Alex Mills, Jefferson Farber, Rex Daugherty and Joel David Santner, who take us for a pleasurably straightforward dive into this well-traveled material: Is any title better suited to the addition of the word “Again”?
Even the apportioning of female roles to male actors is no innovation. Shakespeare did it, and so for that matter did Shakespeare Theatre Company a few years back. The difference is in how Calarco explores, in the saga of lovers whose passion upsets the social order, a sleek modern parallel.
We are led to believe that “R+J” takes place in some unnamed, uptight modern school, where boys march and conjugate Latin verbs. In blazers with institutional insignias, the boys stiffen at the oppressively amplified clangs of a bell. And then, after curfew, they retrieve flashlights as the bravest of them, Mills’s Student 1, pulls out a clandestine copy of Shakespeare’s star-crossed tragedy. Soon enough, Mills is acting Romeo’s lines; Daugherty, the Nurse’s; and Santner, Mercutio’s. Most scandalously of all, Farber joins in as Juliet.
The transformation did not sit well with a small minority of theatergoers at the performance I attended; some nodded off quickly as the actors started speaking in verse, and they skedaddled out at intermission. Was this because, even though Signature hosted an Israeli production of “Hamlet” several years ago, they were not accustomed to classical theater there? Or could it have been the copious amount of man-to-man smooching that sent some fleeing?
That Calarco relies almost entirely on Shakespeare’s words is one of the most engaging aspects of “R+J” and even helps to make sense of the plot. To throw off the school’s rigid yoke, to discover the world of feeling that seems to be denied to them during the day, they need another language for their secret liberation at night. This idea is further reinforced in the Latin word-drills and the snippets of children’s prayers they recite. Of course they would turn to a book for help. All these students know are the lines that have been fed to them.
At moments, “R+J” feels as if it’s rehashing old lesson plans: Some elements remind you of “Spring Awakening,” the bristling rock musical now on at Olney Theatre Center — whose cautionary themes about the repression of young people go back to Frank Wedekind’s German play of the same title, written in 1890. Still, the inventiveness, the cleverness of the staging and the boundless energy of the cast keep us (well, most of us) glued to our seats.
The wedding scene in Friar Lawrence’s cell, interrupted by two of the students, who cannot bring themselves to witness this event, remains as potent an allusion to same-sex marriage as it seemed 16 years ago. In the optimistic new ending, too, that Calarco has developed for this production, an acknowledgment exists that the world may be a little less hostile to the desires of this Romeo.
He’s portrayed by the appealing Mills as an imploring soul who simply will not allow his desires to be ignored, and he’s well-matched by Farber, with whom his intimacy comes across as something urgent. The skill displayed by Daugherty and Santner help ensure that the show attains an equilibrium of accomplishment.
Add to this the resonant underscoring by composer Gabriel Mangiante, and Calarco’s “R+J” returns to the stage still striking major chords.
adapted and directed by Joe Calarco. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Matt Rowe; assistant director, John Moletress; composer, Gabriel Mangiante. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through March 3 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-SEAT.