San Diego, CA—Congratulations to Cygnet theatre celebrating its 10th year of producing. Over the years we have come to enjoy some of the best smaller theatre has to offer from Alfred Uhry’s ‘award winning’ “Parade” to Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”, to Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret”, to a marathon event of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Norman Conquests” just to mention a few.
Now just might be the time to ‘brush up your Shakespeare’ because Cygnet is making its first foray into the Bard’s world with Joe Calarco’s 1997 off Broadway play “Shakespeare’s R&J”. It’s bold and provocative; at least it was back in 1997. Did I forget to mention that all the players are men? They are and they are very intense, virile, good looking and two actually strip down to their skivvies at some point.
Some might still get their kicks out of watching an all male version of “R&J”. For most of today’s young audiences, I would take a guess that it would garner a yawn rather than a gasp. Too many social changes have taken place since 1997, so we put on our grownup pants and enjoy yet another incarnation of Shakespeare. Yet back in the day, an all male Shakespearean play was not to be questioned. Men played all the parts.
In years past, the now defunct Women’s Repertory Theatre cast Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello” with…well, all women. Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson played the role of Othello. Her fiancé, Desdemona was played by Jo Ann Glover and founding mother of the Women’s Theatre Gayle Feldman played the turncoat Iago. That was a leap as well and we all lived to tell about it.
Some time ago I was at the Stratford Festival in Canada where former La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff’s “Romeo & Juliet’ opened on to a public square 21st century Verona with motorcycles and motorized scooters, actors on cell phones and texting. The Capulets were reading for a fight with the Montague’s and the authorities used automatic pistols to break up the brawl that was to follow.
Much has been done with the Bards works in the form of modernizing, updating, reducing (The Reduced Shakespeare) and even playing it close to the bone. Playwright Joe Calarco has re-imagined and updated his original versions of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy between the star crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet to take place in an all boys’ Catholic boarding school where this particular play had been banned- forbidden- outlawed.
Our play opens with four male students marching in unison on Sean Fanning’s stark all wood spit polished shine flooring. It almost sounds as if they have taps on their shoes and will soon break out into a dance.
In the background a chalkboard with the date 1964 fills us in on the time. Added to the ‘scenery’ four chairs, a bench and a trunk are used intermittently. The four young men are going through their daily routine of conjugating Latin, reciting the Ten Commandments, and the Pythagorean theory, reciting the differences in character between the sexes and hacking away at the conventional roles of men and women. “It’s the woman’s responsibility to maintain the comfort and the decency of her family”… It’s all very…structured and restrictive.
After dark when all is said and done, the four creep back to the classroom where they dig up a copy of the forbidden play they had hidden under some floorboards where it is carefully wrapped in a long red piece of cloth. They open the book and begin to read the play out loud, “Two households both alike in dignity….”. And so the play begins.
After some dallying with the contents of the book and reading aloud to each other Student 1 scribbles some notes that sound exactly like the lines taken from the text. It seems he is writing Shakespearean love poetry as the others are carrying on school business. (That was confusing). At first the boys play around, as teenagers will, with the sexuality of the characters, mimicking and guffawing the gender roles.
(In his notes, Calarco insists that the boys are students first and when they get over the embarrassment of playing women they ‘play the female character straight’.)
When they actually get serious and start acting out the scenes, they become their own characters in the play within the play. It becomes evident at some point, especially when some of the more romantic and intimate love scenes intensify that we see the true and raw feelings these men are capable of having; feelings that had been repressed over time at their Catholic School.
When the true test of R &J’s seriousness crosses the line from play to real, it causes the other two students to go into opposition mode thus capturing and bringing to life the wrath felt between the Montague and Capulet families. From here on, we are treated to an all male, oft times erotic and very physical rendition of “Romeo And Juliet”, no holds barred.
Associate Artist George Yé (he will also be acting flight director at the Globe’s 2013 summer Shakespeare Festival) takes the helm in a most confident way in directing a truly talented and fantastic team of the four men who dive into this production with intended seriousness. Dave Thomas Brown (student 3 and Mercutio) Christian Daly (Student 1 and Romeo), Tyler Lea (Student 2 ad Juliet) and John Evans Reese (Student 4 and Nurse/Tybalt) form a tight knit ensemble showing more team work and less individuality than seen in some time.
Christian Daly and Tyler Lea make a perfect Romeo and Juliet. Lets discount the male factor and agree that the chemistry is there. They are awesome together. John Evans Reese is perfect as Juliet’s nurse changing character by simply folding fingers a certain way and stooping over oh so slightly.
Dave Thomas Brown is convincing as Friar Laurence the one who conjures up the potion that knocks Juliet out and in turn pushes this tragedy to its famous conclusion. He is also credible as Romeo’s friend, the troublemaker Mercutio.
The one binding thread used throughout is a three foot long piece of red fabric seen in so many of the scenes and molded as a prop for so many different objects that it takes on a personality of its own
This talented ensemble are all graduates from the North Carolina School of the Arts. That artistic director Sean Murray is also a graduate says volumes for the school. Hats off to that
If you are in the mood for another rendering of “Romeo and Juliet” this might be a chance to see it along with something diverse as well.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through June 16th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre Company
Production Type: Drama
Where: 4040Twiggs St. Old Town
Ticket Prices: $44.00-$47.00