I’ve often thought a fascinating play is waiting to be written around the Elizabethan practice of boy actors assaying the female roles in the plays of Shakespeare, and the sexual tension this convention almost certainly lead to. This idea applies perhaps especially to the lucky youths who first performed those magnificently ardent adolescent lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s R &J, Joe Calarco’s re-imaging of the Bard, isn’t precisely the play of my fond imagination either. But, as its splendid new production by StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance in Studio 6 of Swain Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill proves, it doesn’t need to be. It’s quite stunning enough on its own.

By setting his adaptation in a Catholic boy’s school where four young students surreptitiously examine the play by enacting all the roles, Calarco gets to the heart of institutionalized taboo. For Shakespeare’s lovers, of course, the forbidden nature of their courtship lies in the extreme enmity between their warring clans. For Calarco’s, it’s the bursting forth of feeling between young males in a repressive environment.

The promotional material for Shakespeare’s R & J emphasizes that Romeo and Juliet itself (and, presumably, all of Shakespeare) is banned by the school, and that the book from which the students read is discovered hidden away, yet there is no real evidence of this in Calarco’s treatment. We see the boys (called Students 1-4) in regimented study, much of which consists of misogynist discourses on the prescribed differences between the sexes, but there is no direct imprecation against the reading of Shakespeare; Student 1 merely produces the volume from a trunk. The subsequent “performance” is clearly clandestine, but the reasons for its surreptitious nature are barely implied.

That said, Shakespeare’s R & J, especially as performed here by a superb cast of young actors under the searching direction of StreetSigns associate artistic director Joseph Megel, is joyous. We hear that glorious text enacted by a quartet of uncommonly gifted players, and the seditious context gives this well-known tragedy a resonance well beyond the contours of your high school English prep experience.

The game is afoot early on, when Student 1 (Akil) breaks away from the stultifying routine of Latin, mathematics, religious instruction, and antiquated imprecations against sex to “write” Shakespearean love poetry while his cohorts make obeisance to God for their sins. This, already, is Romeo: aloof, apart from his friends in his romantic melancholy a grandiose form of painful pleasure accessible only to the young and hopeful.

It is this young man who entices the others to imbibe from the fount of iambic pentameter. His reluctant friends, embarrassed at first (and initially inclined to childish improvisation, particularly when called upon to portray the women of the play), gradually become intoxicated by the words they’re speaking and submit to the power, and the beauty, of Shakespeare’s Verona. This is especially apt given that Romeo and Juliet are as besotted with words as they are with each other; they’re as drunk on language as they are on their own sudden passion.

As Student 2 (Francis A. Sarnie IV) takes on the role of Juliet, what begins as anxious and fearful role-playing relaxes into acquiescence and, finally, to full-bodied romantic feeling. As their staged courtship intensifies, the emotional and physical desires of the two boys likewise catch fire. At the same time their compatriots, disturbed by the blurring of the line between stage poetry and sexual expression, begin to reflect the actions and attitudes of those characters most opposed to the union between Capulet and Montague in the play itself.

This is notably true of Student 3 (Christopher Salazar), who frequently thrusts himself physically between the lovers attempting to stave off this “unacceptable” behavior and, perhaps, to protect himself from his own deepest fears. Student 4 (Ronnie Cruz) is, initially, as troubled as his friend, but relents more easily. The “impromptu” casting in this play-within-a-play reflects these concerns: Student 4 assumes the role of the sympathetic Nurse (although he’s also the hot-blooded Tybalt); Student 3 the bellicose mother Capulet and an initially reticent Friar Laurence.

The opposition of the third boy to the events swirling out of his control is most effectively illuminated when, in the marriage scene, he and Student 4 play “keep away” with the book before he tears out the offending page, crumples it, and hurls it to the ground in righteous defiance. (When the event goes ahead, both boys mockingly vocalize the familiar Nino Rota theme from Zefferelli’s film.)

The impact of the greater social forces surrounding the budding lovers is alluded to early on when, at the Capulet’s ball, the boys attempt to waltz with each other; each time two of them face off, the stern warning “Thou shalt not!” is repeatedly invoked just as hands are about to touch. When Romeo woos Juliet, Student 2 first resists the closeness of Student 1, then relents; allows his hand to be kissed, then resists; yields again, allowing Student 1 to take his hand but covering this intimacy with the length of red cloth the boys employ as their sole prop. When he finally gives in, that first tender, halting kiss is wrenchingly curtailed by the other boys just as the couple’s wedding kiss will be rudely torn asunder by the tolling of school bells and a flash of antiseptic institutional light.

As the Romeo of both Calarco’s play and Shakespeare’s, Akil gives a performance of enormous sensitivity and a certain cunning that lends his portrayal a quality of interesting edginess: it is his cajoling that encourages the others to undertake the tragedy, his intensity that wears down his reluctant Juliet. His “Nightingale” scene with Student 2 is terribly sweet and ineffably moving. As Student 4, Ronnie Cruz is an altogether more malleable figure, troubled by the flaring of erotic and emotional attachment between Students 1 and 2 but less obstreperous than Student 3 in opposing it. Cruz’s Nurse begins as caricature and finishes all too human.

As the object of Student 1’s increasing affection, Francis Sarnie gives a lovely, iridescent performance. Student 2, like Juliet herself, goes from skittish but pliable to swooningly entranced, triumphantly rebellious and, later, unabashedly grieving all without recourse to anything so obvious as the broad effeminacy a lesser actor might affect. Like the boy he plays, Sarnie gives himself over to rhapsody; as the balcony scene begins, he sits, musing, a look of hopeful serenity on his face that broadens to a smile of utter romantic joy at the approach of his beloved. I’ve seldom seen the state of love-struck bliss so endearingly conveyed.

It would be unfair to single out one performer from a quartet as accomplished as this. A special nod must be given, however, to Christopher Salazar’s complex and unpredictable Student 3. His Mercutio is athletic, playful, and insouciant in equal measure, and his reading of the “Queen Mab” speech begins with joking and climaxes with a shout of agonized, enigmatic rage. Later, as Friar Laurence, his fury at Romeo’s self-pitying emotional excess neatly dovetails with the Catholic schoolboy’s own impotent anger as his classmates step over the boundary of play-acting into genuine emotional entanglement.

The play, and Megel’s direction of it, resounds with delicious theatricality. When figures of mature authority (Lord Capulet, the Prince, the Apothecary) speak, they do so in staggeringly effective roundelay as the boys recite together or echo and overlap each other’s lines, giving the speeches a gravity and a sense of adult propriety lording itself over the students even in their play-acting. As the first act closes, the boys doff their school ties and sweaters, a simple act that stands as a metaphor for their increasing rebelliousness a revolutionary pose all too easily retreated from at the close of the play. As Juliet awaits news of Romeo, two of the boys beat out the hours of the clock. Calarco (and Megel) use the play’s single prop, that vibrant red cloth, as everything from prince’s cape and priest’s vestment to Juliet’s wedding veil and even as a representation of the blood that flows so freely throughout the text.

Rob Hamilton’s set design powerfully conveys both the medieval architecture of Verona and the sense of the Church’s repressive corporeal solemnity hanging over the boys and their play, and is beautifully complimented by Steve Dubay’s evocative lighting.

Personal Note: There seems to be some curious force at work on Triangle audiences of late. At a recent Friday evening performance of Underneath the Lintel, fewer than a dozen spectators gathered to see that beautifully lucid, incandescent play. At the subsequent Saturday night performance of R & J, there could scarcely have been more than double that number in attendance.

What is scaring audiences away from theater so vital and enriching that nearly everything else on offer pales to insignificance? Is the economy to blame? It seems unlikely, given the crowds that assemble for other, less probing and essential fare. Have we become so frightened of the new, the untested, that we eschew the experience altogether? Great theater is available right this minute, and it goes begging. Why are there so few takers?

Second Opinion: Orla Swift’s Oct. 24th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review:
http://www.newsobserver.com/theaterreview/story/2968863p-2721536c.html [inactive 5/04].

The StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance presents Shakespeare’s R & J 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. 919/843-3865. http://www.unc.edu/depts/comm/streetsigns/nowshowing.htm. Parking Alert: There is now a $1 per hour charge to park in the lot adjacent to Swain Hall.