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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Shakespeare's R & J at The New Conservatory Theatre Center


The New Conservatory Theatre Center is presenting the West Coast Premiere of Joe Calarco's Shakespeare's R & J. This is a fascinating theatrical event engineered by director George Maguire and utilizing the amazing acting of a quartet of fresh young actors doing superb Shakespeare. The two hour show cuts some of the original writing and adds a few Shakespearean sonnets and bits and pieces from his other plays. Ninety-nine percent of the play is comprised of the Bard's own words. This truncated adaptation never drags as the abbreviated story races along with famous lines flying and bodies soon falling, first in love, and then in death. It's acting at a hectic pace but well worth watching. George Maguire has done an excellent job of building the play around the sexual tensions that go with the coming of age.

Joe Calarco's drama first played in a small Manhattan storefront theater and then moved to an Off-Broadway house in March of 1998 where it won a Lucille Lortel Award and ran for a year. The Wall Street Journal called the play, "a gem, the most inventive re-imagining of a classic in years." The play has been presented in many regional theaters in areas as diverse as Chicago and Washington, D.C., Sydney and Singapore, and has won or been nominated for many more awards.

Shakespeare's R & J takes place in a repressive Catholic boy's school where four teenage students spend their days in classes and their nights in prayer. The opening scenes express the school's strict code of discipline as the four students go through the usual drills of conjugating Latin and other tiresome routines.

One night one the schoolboys becomes tired of the monotonous routine. He smashes his notebook against the wall and breaks out a copy of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. They decide to make a game of the play by taking various parts in the classic love story. They find the Bard's words thrilling and are soon entrapped in the play's emotion. The plot of the story sets the explosive and visceral tone for a journey during which these young men find that their unyielding lives parallel the lives of the play's characters. The fun becomes serious as their perceptions and understanding of life are turned completely around.

The four actors are astounding. They have the meter and texture of the Bard's words down pat. Their movements are precise and exciting, thanks to director George Maquire who shows a dynamic and sometimes thrilling vision in this production. Brent Rosenbaum plays several parts including Romeo. Very skilled with the Bard's words, he gives an intense performance. Taylor Valentine as Juliet gives an affecting performance. When asking, "What's in a name?", he might just be saying, "What's in a gender?" Ian Petroni, late of the Off-Broadway productions of Jean Anouilh's Antigone and Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales, is excellent as both the angry Mercutio and the pious Friar Lawrence. His Mercutio shows the teenage boy's own thwarted sexuality and the passion that he has for Romeo. Nick Tagas, who spent last summer at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England, gives an outstanding comic performance as the nurse with a Brooklyn Jewish accent. It is the comic highlight of an otherwise dramatic play. This young man has great charisma and he should do some fine work in the future.

With the exception of four black boxes, the stage is bare. The only other prop is a long bolt of crimson fabric used in ingenious ways. All in all, this is an electrifying production.

Shakespeare's R & J runs through June 29 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., near Market St. in San Francisco. Upcoming productions at the Center will be Terrence McNally's comedy The Ritz opening on May 25, and Kander and Ebb's The World Goes Round opening in June. For tickets to this production and the others, call (415)861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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