Thursday, September 28, 2000

Wherefore art thou, 'R&J'?

All-male Shakespearian 'concept show' keys on obsession, eroticism and escape

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When tiny Manhattan theater company Expanded Arts asked Joe Calarco if he wanted to adapt and direct an all-male Romeo & Juliet, he said “yes” but he thought “no.”

        “There were so many bad ways it could go,” he says now by phone from New York. “How could I have it make sense, instead of doing it just to be trendy? If there's one thing I hate, it's a concept show with no reason for a concept.”

    What: Shakespeare's R&J
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 22
    Where: Playhouse in the Park Shelterhouse, Eden Park
    Tickets: $33-$41. 421-3888. Any unreserved tickets are half-price day of show purchased between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. at the Playhouse box office.

        Mr. Calarco found a reason, which had everything to do with youthful passions repressed by order and rules, with “obsession, eroticism, escape in capital letters.”

        R&J earned a rave review from the New York Times, and Mr. Calarco saw his four-actor Shakespeare move into the big leagues of off-Broadway, pick up some awards and become the longest running production of Romeo & Juliet in New York history.

        Playhouse in the Park opens the Shelterhouse season with the regional premiere of Shakespeare's R&J, continuing through Oct. 22.

        Mr. Calarco had never seen an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet that he liked. "It's always so sweet. I want to strangle Juliet. There's never any danger, there's no sex.

        “Today we look at teen-age couples in headlines and we think they're insane. Then we look at Romeo and Juliet and think, "How sweet.' No, they're insane!

        “Just because Shakespeare understands the human condition, it doesn't mean it can't be a good time.”

"Oh, this can work!'

        Mr. Calarco started out by making a list of places one would likely find a population of young men — a school, a prison, the military. He settled on a Catholic boys' school.

        About the same time he rented a video of The Crucible. “I saw the opening sequence, the mix of eroticism and terror, the hysteria born of oppression, and I thought, "Oh, this can work!' ”

        While Mr. Calarco is not Catholic, many of his relatives are. “I come from a large family with lots of weddings and funerals. So I have that epic sense of Catholicism. Catholicism has a wonderful theatricality.”

        R&J, says Mr. Calarco, “turned out being a more radical adaptation than I intended.” That's largely because it's as much about the schoolboys discovering themselves through Shakespeare as it is the playing out of the action. “I knew we could do whatever we wanted, because everybody knows the story.”

Juliet not an innocent

        He took his inspiration for Juliet from a film Juliet, the one Kate Winslet played in Heavenly Creatures, a character who is “out of her mind, vivacious, voracious. This girl isn't innocent at all, she knows what she wants and she goes for it.”

        As the men took on female roles, primary questions came out: how to play a woman, what it means to be a man.

        “We never talked about gender issues,” says Mr. Calarco, although they did ponder how powerful actresses (Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange) can communicate a palpable fury that has to be muted, that isn't allowed to come out in a male-dominated world. And there was much exploration of how men and boys interact.

        Alan Bailey, who last helmed Sanders Family Christmas for the Playhouse, directs R&J.

        Mr. Calarco, who didn't get another job for eight months after R&J, now has as much work as he can handle. He'll start rehearsals for a new play, In the Absence of Spring, in October in Washington, D.C. He's co-written the book for a new musical, Outlaws, which he expects will begin rehearsals in spring or summer.

        A screenplay for R&J has been finished for a year and a half. When filming will begin “is a good question. It's been an ongoing process, ebbing and flowing every day. There have been start dates that didn't happen. But I'm confident that it will happen.”

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