By the time “Shakespeare’s R+J” had arrived in the ’90s, explorations of sexual identity had long ceased to be revolutionary events on New York stages.
“It was the time of all those gay-men-in-underwear plays,” Calarco says. Still, a stage kiss between men back then remained a rarity, especially for entertainments seeking mainstream audiences.
Calarco was eager to see how well “R+J” held up. “When Eric asked me, ‘Would you want to do it again?’, I was like, ‘Hmm,’ ” Calarco says, invoking Signature’s artistic director, Eric Schaeffer. “It was a very important piece to me — it gave me my career. It was very important to do it again, at a prominent theater. And I’m a lot older now, and the world has changed. So I was excited to see that people might still be excited about it.”
The actors playing Romeo and Juliet this time around have no trouble drawing connections between the 16-year-old play and their lives. The world, they say, has moved on in some ways, and in some ways, not so much. Jefferson Farber, who portrays the student who becomes Juliet, says the wedding scene carries a particular meaningfulness for him; in Calarco’s adaptation, two of the other boys, played by Joel David Santner and Rex Daugherty, angrily rip out of the book the pages detailing Romeo and Juliet marrying secretly in Friar Lawrence’s cell.
“As a gay actor, living in the times we’re living in now, I’m not free to choose to marry the person I want to marry,” Farber says. What the play reminds him of, he adds, “is my rage against society, and the laws telling me I can’t do this.”
Mills, too, sees in Romeo’s defiance a way to understand how the student he plays can break with the rigid code the school enforces and, in effect, find himself. It’s perhaps why this most familiar of ancient plays feels young again. “It’s what Joe said to us,” Mills recounts. “What makes it so exciting for audiences is that it’s like watching it for the first time.”
adapted and directed by Joe Calarco. Through March 3 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington.
Call 703-573-7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.