A tight-knit band of boarding school students (from left: Alex Mills, Joel David Santner, Jefferson Farber, and Rex Daugherty) uncover a secret copy of the banned play “Romeo and Juliet” in “Shakespeare’s R&J.” (TERESA WOOD)

‘Shakespeare’s R+J’ sets new themes in old play

It’s the most famous teenage kiss of all time. “O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do. They pray,” Romeo declares on that fateful night of love at first sight at the Capulets’ masked ball. And so fraught a kiss for a young actor named Greg Shamie, just out of Circle in the Square theater school and hired for a modest, four-man version of the play staged in a storefront on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, that he wasn’t sure he was ready for it.

“I had never kissed a man before, and I was freaking out,” Shamie, who now has a wife and two young daughters, says of the events of 16 years ago. “I remember being cast and thinking, ‘Should I do this, or not?’ ”

He did, ultimately, do “this,” which turned into a show that would alter the course of Shamie’s and his fellow actors’ careers and cement the creative bona fides of its director-adapter, Joe Calarco. “Shakespeare’s R+J” the director called it, a piece that would move from the Expanded Arts company’s storefront on Ludlow Street to a year-long stay in a theater on West 42nd Street and eventually would be mounted to admiring reviews in such far-flung cities as London and Tokyo.

“Shakespeare’s R & J” features an all-male cast at Arlington’s Signature Theatre. The production is adapted and directed by Joe Calarco. (Video by James Gardiner/Courtesy Signature Theatre./The Washington Post)

It was a trajectory Calarco could never have foreseen for a production that started in that makeshift downtown space with a smattering of audience members seated in a circle of folding chairs, watching as four young actors enact through the verse the story of their own sexual awakening. Nor could Calarco — whose directorial efforts have become a staple of, among other companies, Signature Theatre — have imagined that “Shakespeare’s R+J” would have such staying power that a full decade and a half after its debut, it would materialize yet again, on Signature’s main stage in the Village at Shirlington.

I first encountered “Shakespeare’s R+J” in its rawest shape, on Ludlow Street back in 1997, and ever since have felt a bond with its restless, nervy, fearless assault on a play so often performed it almost cannot avoid cliche. Calarco, it seems, has been unable to leave it alone, either. He’s revised the piece several times over the years; the published script is based on a 2003 London production. And, in fact, in this new, souped-up Signature version, embellished by the romantic flourishes in Chris Lee’s lighting and James Kronzer’s set design, the director has rewritten the ending: the piece now resounds more optimistically at the newfound sense of liberation expressed by its “Romeo,” played by Alex Mills.

“It’s been really great to do it again,” says Calarco, whose work at Signature has included well-received stagings of musicals such as “Urinetown” and “Assassins,” and a production of his modest original play, “Walter Cronkite is Dead.” “It’s made me remember that, wow, it actually worked. People would always say to me, ‘It’s the clearest “Romeo and Juliet” I’ve ever seen.’ ”

“Shakespeare’s R+J” takes place in a vague sort of modern day, in an unspecified learning institution with rigorous moral standards: The strong suggestion is offered, as the four young men march onto the stage in insignia-emblazoned jackets and begin to conjugate verbs in Latin, that this is a stifling religious school. After lights out, the boldest of the four pulls from a hiding place what seems a sacred book. It’s revealed to be “Romeo and Juliet” and, over the course of the next two hours, the students take turns reading from the work by flashlight and with youthful, roughhouse brio playing all of the characters.

The drama, though, is pretext, as the boys who play Romeo and Juliet express — to the consternation of the others — their enveloping passion for each other ever more boldly, through the words and actions of the play.

Calarco says that Shamie’s own discomfort at kissing the actor playing Juliet, Daniel Shore, was precisely the sensation he wanted conveyed in “R+J”: this was, after all, the story of two young men discovering through Shakespeare for the first time who they really were. “Greg turned away and giggled and blushed,” Calarco recalled. Shamie’s reaction encapsulated the terror the schoolboy characters all feel, delving into the love story, a notion reflected in the students’ hyper-dramatic gasping for breath that the director wrote into his script.

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.”

Shakespeare’s R+J

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.