Shakespeare's R&J is a stylized, movement-heavy production that recasts the old story in terms of a forbidden romance between two boys in a Catholic school. It starts with a group of students in rep ties and blazers marching onstage. They recite Latin, rules of geometry, and lines from a guidebook about proper sex roles. ("A woman is best suited to making the home," etc.) Later, hiding in the chapel, they recite lines from a school-banned Shakespeare text, Romeo and Juliet, and for at least two of them the sniggering discovery of lush, suggestive, Elizabethan poetry is a revelation. The boys in the lead roles -- a princelike Romeo and a fey Juliet -- fall in love.
Of course, the scenario has high cheeseball potential: "Catholic schoolboys rehearse a unisex Romeo & Juliet." Oh, God, how original. Why not girls at summer camp? Or priests in a seminary? But Joe Calarco tells his story with an artful editor's pen, by adding as little as possible to Shakespeare's script. (He takes an "adapting" credit, in fact, not a playwriting one.) The boys never talk to each other as students; they don't even have names. The military marching and reciting sets an atmosphere, and the extracurricular love story comes out through the four actors' sweaty, multilevel performances.
Ian Petroni sets a tone for the rehearsal by delivering a wise-ass "Queen Mab" speech, as Mercutio. His long description of a fairy queen who inspires men to "dream of love" is florid and ridiculous; most actors play it for laughs, and Petroni, as a Catholic teenager, can't wipe the smirk off his face. The other kids are with him; except for Romeo, they don't take it seriously. Even when Petroni leans over to kiss Brent Rosenbaum, who plays Romeo, the kiss is sarcastic. "Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!" Romeo says. "Thou talk'st of nothing."
Romeo disguises his Juliet infatuation with an appropriate level of jokiness -- until the famous first kiss. Then both Rosenbaum and Taylor Valentine (playing Juliet) tremble with unfettered, unsanctioned lust. Juliet asks Romeo to do it again. "Sin from my lips?" Romeo asks. "O trespass sweetly urged! Give me my sin again."
He kisses her.
"Madam," interrupts Juliet's Nurse. "Your mother craves a word with you," and the tension in the theater palpably slackens. I've never felt that happen in a traditional version of Romeo and Juliet; everyone knows the story too well.
Nick Tagas plays the Nurse as a Fran Drescher-style nanny, with a broad Long Island accent. The effect is even funnier because Tagas is a slight, bratty-looking, boyish young man. "Faith, I can tell huh age unto an 'owah," he says. The voice is hard for Tagas to maintain, but it's good comic relief.
Valentine is a swooning, excitable Juliet; he manages to play a girl without pitching his voice unnaturally high, or ruining the character with too much camp (as Ian Petroni, unfortunately, ruins Mrs. Capulet). If Valentine weren't so good the whole production would fall apart, but he walks the thin line between sweetness and silliness that the role demands.
The actors move around the bare, black-box space at the New Conservatory in frenetic and sometimes clunky formations. George Maguire directs the movement with an underlying stiffness that reminds us we're in Catholic school. John Tracy's fight choreography is graceful and dancelike -- almost swing-dance-like -- and the props are as economical as the script, consisting of a couple of black-painted crates and a red sash.
Shakespeare's R&J ended a long off-Broadway run in New York about four years ago. In the meantime it's done well in Minneapolis and Houston, among other places. None of these productions was explicitly gay; in fact, a director in Texas wanted to emphasize the forbiddenness of the love in R&J, rather than the homosexuality. Maguire has succeeded here by doing the same thing. It seems forbidden love is more universal than gender. "A rose by any other name," as Juliet might say (not quite so obscenely), "would smell as sweet."