Alex Mills has something to say.
The actor, coming off 41 / 2 years of performing in wordless Synetic productions, has landed his first leading and speaking role, in Signature Theatre’s “Shakespeare’s R&J.”
This is not technically his first time at the talkie rodeo — he was in Studio Theatre’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” last summer — but Mills is excited to use this new role as an opportunity to demonstrate the versatility of Synetic’s performers.
“To me, it was important to do this show to just show to people that go see Synetic [shows] that we are actors that can speak,” said Mills. “We just happen to enjoy working at Synetic where it’s more movement-based and abstract and kinetic.”
“R&J” takes place at a strict all-male Catholic school where some students get their hands on a copy of the contraband “Romeo and Juliet” and read it in secret.
Mills played Romeo in Synetic’s silent production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and the transition to talking, while challenging, has not meant abandoning his roots in physical theater.
“R&J” director Joe Calarco “really embraces physical theater and incorporating silent storytelling into the production,” said Mills. “So the show is heavily text-based, but it’s also very stylized.”
Mills, 23, plays Student #1 , the ringleader of the rulebreakers, and, in the play-within-the-play, Romeo. “He’s sort of the engine of the play,” said Mills. The boarding school has banned the book outright; the students meet at night to avoid getting caught by faculty members.
“It’s not just a slap on the wrist,” said Mills of the risks of defying draconian school policy. It’s like the Chokey from ‘Matilda,’ ” said Mills, referring to the Roald Dahl story in which students are confined in a knife-filled closet. “That’s where my brain went to: If we get caught, that’s where we’ll be. Indefinitely.”
A person could argue that the whole scenario is such a nerd fantasy. It’s right up there with “Dead Poets Society.” Like, oooooh, reading banned books! How risky and rebellious!
“It is sort of a nerdy thing,” Mills acknowledges. “But in the context of how Joe has presented it, it’s really cool-slash-exciting-slash-dangerous.”
Also, “even if you’ve seen ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or you might have a preconceived notion of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ” — which is to say, if you are a part of the English-speaking world — “the audience gets to watch it for the first time because they’re watching us experience it for the first time,” said Mills. “It’s an interesting dynamic.”
Because the thing about ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ said Mills, is that “It is a crazy show. It’s Shakespeare, but it’s nuts. Romeo and Juliet are crazy.”
Through March 3, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, 703-820-9771, www.signature-theatre.org.
Theater J’s production of David Mamet’s play “Race” is serving as the theatrical anchor to the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) symposium “Race in America: Where Are We Now?” this weekend.
The two-day event (Feb. 16-17), said Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth, sprang from the success of last year’s “Spinozium.” That day-long symposium on the 17th-century Jewish philosopher Spinoza was held in conjunction with Theater J’s production of “New Jerusalem.” “Two hundred and fifty people came and stayed for six hours,” said Roth. Since then, “everybody was telling us, ‘You’re going to have to top yourself.’ ”
Mamet’s “Race” is just one component of this year’s symposium, in which panel topics include racial backlash, Barack Obama’s presidency, the planned 2015 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall and “transracial adoption and biracial identities.”
Panelists include Joy Zinoman, former artistic director of Studio Theatre; Michael Steele, MSNBC political analyst and the first African American chairman of the Republican National Committee; Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and Jennifer Nelson, former producing director of African Continuum Theatre.
“Yes, we’ve got more African Americans working in the White House than ever before, and it’s a time to take stock and celebrate,” said Roth. “It’s extremely moving. But there are also troubling elements here that have to be discussed.” He pointed to the “cross-section of conservatives and liberals” on the panels and emphasized that “these are not ‘post-show’ discussions. These are public affairs conversations taking place parallel to the production of the play.”
“This decade has been a time where we’re hearing more playwrights from the African American community and women playwrights than ever before,” said Roth. “What hasn’t happened is the [kind of dialogue] where the white community is being asked to look at itself. That’s what this weekend is doing, in a way.”
All of the issues addressed by the panels “are things that have been murmured about,” said Roth. “But none of us have been participating in face-to-face conversations about this, and this is an opportunity to experience a play and . . . bring some very important thinkers and look at a series of subjects” pertaining to race in modern America.
Tickets to the panels can be purchased through the DCJCC Web site at washingtondcjcc.org. The Root is the program’s digital media sponsor.
“Race” runs through Mar. 17 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW, 800-494-8497, www.washingtondcjcc. org/center-for-arts/theater-j.