The ABCs of R&J

Though Romeo and Juliet has borne all kinds of interpretations over the centuries, Shakespeare's tale of thwarted young love is currently being given one of its most inventive stagings ever, reimagined as the 'testosterone-pumped' presentation of four rebellious students at a private school for boys. Following a critically acclaimed debut run at Expanded Arts on Manhattan's Lower East Side, R&J -- as it is now called -- has moved to the John Houseman Studio Theatre for an open-ended engagement.

"I'm a company member at Expanded Arts," says Joe Calarco, who adapted, directed, and designed the show. "They called me and said they wanted to open with an all-male Romeo and Juliet. I agreed to direct it, and then I though: What the hell am I gonna do? I wanted a very theatrical concept, because I've seen so many productions of this wildly passionate play that were boring. The idea of a boys' school worked because it gave us an oppressive environment, one in which there seemed something forbidden about reading Romeo & Juliet.

Sean Dugan, Danny Gurwin, Greg Shamie, and Daniel Shore comprise the R&J company. Clad as typical preppies, sneaking off to read verse as an almost illicit act, these guys may call to mind certain characters from the film Dead Poets Society, but Calarco downplays the comparison. "My image was more along the lines of Lord of the Flies," he says. "In fact, my first inspiration was The Crucible, where an act is so forbidden that people run off into the woods to perform it. We focused on the violence, the danger, the desperate need to escape.

"For me, the major discovery has been how strong the play's women are," Calarco relates. "Romeo constantly waffles and veers from his desires, but Juliet never does. In fact, some audience members say that our Juliet has achieved a perfect female character by playing stereotypically male qualities.

"There are two stories going on at once in our show," says Calarco. "But the story of the students sort of finishes at the end of our first act. The issues they've been dealing with -- what are women like, the possibility of love between two men -- are more or less settled by then. From that point on, they just do Romeo and Juliet for each other.

- Michael Portantiere

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