Percussive, staccato and thoroughly engrossing, Joe Calarco's adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, featuring nifty direction by Rob Ruggiero, continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through December 20th. Entitled Shakespeare's R&J, the production features four youthful and oftentimes electric actors who play many roles.
The context is a conventional, rigid private Catholic school and the classmates all wear gray pants and sleeveless sweaters, identical ties, white shirts and black shoes. Brian Prather's set includes a rear charcoal gray wall (with red candles here and there). If this looks like a tomb, it also works well as a metaphor, one assumes, for a dreary, inhibiting boarding school.
The play is largely devoid of props. The performers utilize their chairs at the outset to draw attention. A red piece of fabric serves as a robe or cloak; later, it survives grappling in a virtual tug-of-war.
TheaterWorks provides a written plot summary for those in need. The show, however, is about characters and clever staging and movement. The verse is Shakespeare's and it is honored. Every so often, a school bell rings or the boys, together, conjugate in Latin. The touches are just enough to serve as reminders of time and placea parochial world.
A few moments must receive special mention. Romeo (Adam Barrie) and Juliet (Ashley Robinson) are most believable. During one sequence they are bare-chested; this is natural. The relationship between the two actors is fervent and intense. TJ Linnard shows range as he characterizes the Nurse or Tybalt. He moves from one to the other without a hitch. Paul Terzenbach embodies Friar Laurence and Lady Capulet. He is slain when playing Mercutio.
The performance elements, including Matthew Richards' lighting choices and Vincent Oliveri's versatile sound delivery, absolutely flavor and enhance the proceedings. The music at the very beginning of the show immediately transports one to another localea burial chamber. Then again, Oliveri intersperses chimes and bells when appropriate.
Ruggiero's direction is quite specific yet fully allows each of these twenty-something actors the opportunity to create. It's a fine mixture of discipline and anarchic energy. All of the young players are quite adept and they fit together neatly within the framework of the presentation.
Calarco's imaginative take on the play combines with Ruggiero's direction to allow for passionate performance. I entered the theater having formed my own belief that the ensemble would partake in a play which would allow prep school boys to fuse their characters with those within the Shakespeare. That is not the purpose. Each individual is detailed with his delivery and the script dialogue rings true. The compressed performance space actually allows one to ponder other performances of Romeo and Juliet. In my case, that means versions at Hartford Stage and Shakespeare & Company.
"Wherefore art thou Romeo?" remains. The play still focuses upon love and death. The TheaterWorks rendering insists that those watching pay attention to four actors who, with spirit and feeling, explore a wide variety of characters. As Calarco and Ruggiero liberate them, they, individually and collectively, maximize opportunities.
Shakespeare's R&J continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through December 20th. For ticket information, call (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.
- Fred Sokol