Play #1: Shakespeare’s R&J

So, I was stumbling around the internet and found an ad for Joe Calarco’s “Shakespeare’s R&J” at the Signature Theatre in Shirlington, VA on WAMU’s website. They had discount tickets, and I was so excited to find a Shakespeare-esque play so soon after starting this project! After a few weeks of no-go scheduling, my frind Jess and I booked a Saturday evening show using the $25 Signature Shakespeare Stalls program for discount great seats.

Shakespeare's R&J Ticket

Romeo and Juliet?

I didn’t know what to expect from this play. The promo posters were all preppy looking guys and the synopsis on the website implied that this was a production about Romeo and Juliet inspired explorations of sexuality. I had no idea if the play would be about Romeo and Juliet or be a modern reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet. The play turned out to be mostly the text of Romeo and Juliet performed by four boys in secret in a boarding school. The liberties taken with Shakespeare’s text were few, which I did not anticipate.
Shakespeare's R&J Program

R&J all night at boarding school

The play opened with the four prep school boys marching around in formations and chanting Latin conjugations. One or two at a time, they would from the rigorous exercises to be boys – goofing, laughing, fooling around. One read from his journal of love and romance – he would play Romeo. During the rest of the play when something scary happened – thunder, or a teacher coming – all of the boys except Romeo would revert to this world of strict behavior, signaling a break in the magic of Romeo and Juliet.

Only four actors?

The boys act out Romeo and Juliet, reading from a contraband copy of the play they’ve hidden under a floorboard. The four actors take on not only the schoolboys, but also all of the major roles in Romeo and Juliet: the romantic boy as Romeo, a more serious boy as a strong and not-simpering Juliet, the lankiest actor as many supporting characters, notably the Friar and Mercutio, and the fourth actor in the character roles as both the comical Nurse and the raging Tybalt.

I was surprised at how easy it was to follow character assignment and reassignment during the course of the play. The playwright did me a favor by introducing and reintroducing characters while the boys were assigned roles. Romeo and Juliet is usually played with many actors for the 28 named characters in the script, and I’ve found that some of the less central characters (like Mercutio and Benvolio) are harder to keep track of. With roles were assigned in situ you always knew who the players on stage were.

In the ferocious scene where Juliet’s dad learns of her romance, three actors took on the role of the angry father, berating Juliet from all sides. The amplified emotions throughout the production reminded me that Juliet was a teenager and this was her whole world – her angst and anguish and love were fully immersive – and the storytelling in this production dragged me back to my teenage heightened emotions.

Reality and fantasy

The play’s frame story was intense and sensual as characters fell into and out of the drama of R&J and the repressive environment of their school. The plot revolved around the boy who played Romeo romancing the boy who played Juliet, only to be rejected at the end of the night. The play ends with his hasty depart.

Over the course of the play, he changed from being exactly the same as the other three boys – conforming to the firm catholic school rigor – to succumbing to his romantic spirit. In stark contrast, the other three boys returned to the characters they started as after the night of living R&J. I wondered how much the characters had actually changed and whether they suppressed the transformations they’d undergone in the dark or whether it was just a night-time folly.

The production itself was incredibly physical – with few props (a box, some chairs, a book, and a 20-foot-long piece of red silk) on a raised square stage, the actors tumbled, danced, and fought with each other. The few props were improvised furniture, weapons, bedsheets and blood as required by the boys’ interpretation of the play.

An understudy performed the night we were there, but since the program listed the cast only as Boy 1, Boy 2, Boy 3, and Boy 4, we didn’t know who it was. It’s most impressive to watch gymnastic theatre with incredible group coordination and choreography knowing that one of the actors DOESN’T do this every night but fits seamlessly into the ensemble performance. There was no room for error in some of the scenes. Moreso, it was impressive to realize that these actors did this every night – what a workout!

It’s like you were in the play

While the scenery was sparse, the sound and lighting design lured the me into every scene. In the round, a piece of the balcony had been designated “moon” and, while only visible to half of the audience, let the stage leak out into the rest of the theatre as the play happened around us. And, as scenes required, the front wall of the balconies was washed in color, saturating the space. The queen Mab speech was performed in chorus with voices coming from every side. It was like being plunged into Shakespeare.

For only a few moments, the stage was fully isolated from the rest of the theatre. Romeo’s midnight visit to Juliet’s bed separated the audience from the lovers by a ring of candles which descended to frame the stage, their bed. When they meet in the woods in the rain, the audience was painted a deep blue while drops of light appeared on the stage with stereophonic water drops, which the boys ran to like a cat to a laser beam. From the balcony, looking down on the stage, we had the full effect of the light forming puddles on the stage, and later, graceful screen patterns around Juliet’s bedroom.

Playbill and director Joe Calarco have great pictures from the show.

Best moments

Benvolio, drunk and in the woods, yelling for the absent Romeo

Objectively, this was an actor on a stage, stumbling around a box, but in the style of Shakespeare’s globe, I remember it as a drunken goofball tripping over a fallen tree in a mossy wood.


There’s a power outage at the frame story school in the middle of the play, and the actors light themselves and the room with flashlights. It’s incredibly intimate and raw to break from the intentionally cool and warm theatre lights to the bright and slightly garish light of flashlights.

Woe / Juliet and her Romeo

After the dramatic deaths, the end of the production slowed down as the boys extracted themselves from the intensity of the night. The closing speech was particularly touching – the line “give me your hands” was accompanied by a demonstration of deep camaraderie amongst the boys as they shook hands and patted backs. I sat waiting for “never was a story of such woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo” for longer than was comfortable as the boy Romeo dealt with rejection by his Juliet.

And a criticism

I know I just sung the praises of this production. But there was one thing that irked me during the show. While I really enjoyed some of the sound effects, using voice recordings to throw the actors voices around the space and multiply the cast of 4, some of the sound recordings weren’t as good as the actors on stage. I really appreciated the parts where the sound was an extension of the on-stage action, but sometimes it overamplified, overmodified, or just went too far outside of the grounded voices of the actors in the room.

Two hours stage

This was a great production, and I’m glad I knew little about it before going to it. The pacing was exciting and intimate, and the emotions ranged from intense and to hilarious. Watching it unfold without knowing it would actually (mostly) be Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was exciting. And the unexpected switches from Romeo and Juliet to the boys’ reality made it feel covert and magical. Perfect first play in my Shakespeare series!