The StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance will present the regional premiere of Shakespeare’s R & J, Joe Calarco’s award-winning adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Oct. 21-Nov. 9 in Studio 6 of Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The show is set in an all-boys Catholic boarding school, where four boys forbidden to read Romeo and Juliet find a copy of this banned book and begin reading and acting out this tragedy of star-crossed lovers.

In assuming the familiar roles of Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, et al., the boys come face to face with fears and sexual feelings heretofore repressed in their extremely regimented boarding-school environment. “What could be more dangerous than the first forbidden kiss of literature’s most famous lovers?” asked Fall River Productions, LLC, which staged the show’s central Florida premiere. The answer: “The first forbidden kiss of two school boys.”

Dramatist Joe Calarco says “the world of [Shakespeare’s R & J] is a world full of danger… [P]ut (four) schoolboys in a school where Catholicism reigns, patriarchy rules, and where simply reading Shakespeare is forbidden, and you have a world pulsating with repressed hysteria…. I wanted to make the play dangerous, to be about the forbidden.”

StreetSigns associate artistic director Joseph Megel, who recently staged Dream Boy, will direct Shakespeare’s R & J. He says, “R&J re-imagines a classic by creating four contemporary characters who find a forbidden text so compelling that they find themselves drawn inexorably into it until it shakes their world. The concept of four actors, playing repressed high school boys with raging everything, who then play all the characters in Romeo and Juliet, a play about raging everything, is a fascinating and resonant match. The fluidity and inventiveness of the stagecraft needed to pull off all the different worlds being explored makes directing R&J wonderfully rewarding and a challenge to any director’s powers of invention.”

Megel briefly summarizes the play’s plot as follows: “Four Catholic Prep School boys (Akil, Francis A. Sarnie IV, Christopher Salazar, and Ronnie Cruz) escape their very regimented and rigid environment by acting out Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for themselves something that is forbidden. They start off by switching off roles till eventually, Student 1 (Akil) and Student 2 (Sarnie) take on the roles of Romeo and Juliet. As the intensity increases and stakes increase for the characters of Romeo and Juliet, so do they for the boys until the transformation of the characters in the Romeo and Juliet, becomes the transformation for the boys themselves.”

Joseph Megel says, “These four actors must play boys playing intensely different, passionate, and somewhat familiar characters. So finding the right qualities to tell both the boys’ story and the Romeo and Juliet story as well is very challenging. The remarkable thing is that finding the truth for the students is a way of discovering new truths about this classic text.”

Shakespeare’s R & J made its New York debut in 1997 as a workshop production of the tiny (30-seat) Manhattan-based Expanded Arts Theatre Company. After a rave review by The New York Times, which called the show “a vibrant, hot-blooded new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet,” in early 1998 the original production transferred to the John Houseman Studio Theater Off-Broadway. It ran until 1999 and won a Lucille Lortel Award for playwright Joe Calarco.

The Wall Street Journal called Shakespeare’s R & J “a gem, the most inventive re-imagining of a classic in years.”

In praising a subsequent British production of Shakespeare’s R & J, Charles Spencer of The Telegraph wrote: “This is one of the most electrifying adaptations of Shakespeare I have ever seen. When it comes to originality, sexiness and daring, it is right up there with West Side Story, another unforgettable piece of theatre inspired by Romeo and Juliet. But while that great musical was big, bold and brassy, this astonishing off-Broadway production… is rapt, intimate, and dreamlike, more like a searching string quarter than Bernstein’s symphonic splendour.”

John Peter of The Sunday Times called the show “a brilliantly athletic exploration of Romeo and Juliet…. The performance has all the essential qualities of the play: poetry, headlong, youthful energy and the piercing sense of adolescent love…. This is a thrilling piece of work, both study aid and gripping theatre.”

StreetSigns director Joseph Megel says, “I was living in New York when Joe Calarco adapted and produced Shakespeare’s R & J in the NYC Fringe festival. The response was amazing, and what started as a very small production in a parking lot moved to Off-Broadway for a very successful run. I never did see [that] production…, but the concept of four boys in a very repressive world who, forbidden to read Romeo and Juliet, find a way toward expression using Shakespeare did and does intrigue me.”

Besides director Joseph Megel, the StreetSigns production team for Shakespeare’s R & J includes set designer Rob Hamilton, lighting designer Steve Dubay, costume designer Diana Waldier, sound designer Dean Gray, and fight choreographer Scott Franco.

“The original New York set design was as simple as it could be, a black box with cubes to sit on and a trunk,” Megel says. “Rob Hamilton and I wanted to keep it equally simple, but wanted to evoke the environment of the boys at their school, so we created a visual envelope that one might find in an older stodgy and traditional Catholic prep school. The set consists of a wood tiled floor and four columns.”

Megel says, “The lighting exists in both the ‘real world’ of the school and in the imagination of the boys when they begin playing the play. So it goes from stark to expressive.” He adds, “The four boys are dressed as prep school boys might be dressed. Their clothes do become a metaphor for the rigid structure from which they want to escape.

“This is not a play about gender bending Shakespeare, a conceit that is often used,” Megel claims. “It is a play about the transformative powers of art, love, and passion. Ultimately, unlike the original, Joe Calarco’s adaptation is not a tragedy but a sort of triumph for the four boys who carry it out.”

The StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance presents Shakespeare’s R & J Tuesday-Saturday, Oct. 21-25, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 26, at 2 p.m.; Thursday, Oct. 30, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 2, at 2 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 6-8, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 9, at 2 p.m. in Studio 6 of Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $14 Friday-Saturday, $12 Thursday and Sunday, with Student Rush, senior discounts, and group rates available and pay-what-you-can preview Oct. 21. 919/843-3865. Parking Alert: There is now a $1 per hour charge to park in the lot adjacent to Swain Hall.