REVIEW: Shakespeare’s R & J (Journeymen Theater)

Play combines schoolboy charm with star-crossed lovers


Luke Daigle, Brenton Abens, Chris Necker & Adam Kander_1

The Journeymen Theater presents
Shakespeare’s R & J
Adapted by Joe Calarco
Directed by Frank Pullen
Berger Park Coach House, 6205 N. Sheridan (map)
through August 21st  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” This is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, second only to the Hamlet quote “To be, or not to be.” I remember being able to recite both bits of dialogue as a child without knowing the difference between Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss.

Luke Daigle & brenton Abens And that’s just one of the great things about Shakespeare. The bard’s work has become not only larger than the man himself, but larger than the art of theatre. People who have never seen a play in their lives can quote Shakespeare. The stories, with their heavy reliance on dramatic irony and literary archetypes, have been retold time and time again in countless forms from television shows to feature films.

It is because of this universal familiarity with Shakespeare that a play like Shakespeare’s R&J works. By recontextualizing Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet into a play within a play about schoolboys that share a love that dare not speak its name, playwright Joe Calarco creates new themes, impregnating the classic tragedy with contemporary poignancy. And in the directorial hands of The Journeymen Theater’s artistic director, Frank Pullen, the production is one of the most vivacious renditions of Romeo & Juliet I’ve seen yet.

The play centers on a group of schoolboys, who at the top of the play diligently scribble in their notebooks and recite their daily lessons. We get the sense that there is much pressure from an unseen force, some adult force, to conform. The boys don uniforms, they stand in a perfect square and they list the handful of sins they are forbidden to commit, which predictably includes lust.

Once the school bell chimes, the boys relax a bit and begin horsing around. One pulls out a copy of Romeo & Juliet, and they giddily begin assuming the roles of the various characters. At first, the boys are playful, fulfilling their parts with a self-awareness of their schoolyard lark. But as the play progresses and a real romance sprouts between Student 1 (Luke Daigle) and Student 2 (Brenton Abens), who play Romeo and Juliet respectively, the young men show more commitment to their roles. It is here that we witness the source of Shakespeare’s R&J’s power and weakness.

Luke Daigle, Brenton Abens, Chris Necker & Adam Kander Adam Kander, Chris Necker & Brenton Abens

The less the boys commit to their Shakespearian parts, the less we feel as if we’re simply watching an all-male performance of the original play. It is in the moments where the schoolboys break character that the charm and weight of the first play—the one about schoolboys in love—shines through. For example, the marriage scene between Romeo and Juliet is emotionally charged thanks to a stop in the action. As Student 1 thinly veils himself as Romeo and reads from the text as if it is actual wedding vows, Students 3 and 4 (Chris Necker and Adam Kander respectively) repeatedly snatch the book away. It is here that we see how the love between Romeo and Juliet, despite its purity and innocence, is parallel to the love between these two students.

However, as the play continues into its final act, it begins to lose its momentum. We all know how Romeo & Juliet ends. No one sits foolishly rooting for a happy outcome. And so as the frequency of schoolboy interjections diminishes, the incentive to be engaged in the action diminishes as well.

Luke Daigle and Brenton Abens All actors have their Shakespeare chops down. They speak the bard’s words with clarity, eloquence and passion. Actors give special consideration to the rhythm of the words, transforming the dialogue into narrative poetry, as it was intended. Abens (for whom Shakespeare’s R&J is his professional debut) does an outstanding job playing the young Juliet with a genuine femininity and fragility without debasing the character to female parody. Although a great orator, Necker is miscast in this role. His look and delivery are best suited for comedy, which works when he plays the mischievous Mercutio. However, the same qualities impede him in the roles of Lady Capulet and Friar Lawrence.

Artfully staged and well acted, Shakespeare’s R&J is good entertainment, especially for the Shakespeare aficionado. Nonetheless, other audience members may grow weary as the piece becomes engulfed in the original text, and the story of two boys in love takes a backseat.

Rating: ★★★

Adam Kander, Brenton Abens, Luke Daigle & Chris Necker







Cast and Crew

BRENTON ABENS (Student 2) is a recent graduate from The Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University (Theatre Conservatory). His educational credits include Ah, Wilderness!, Henry V, Peer Gynt, All In A Days Work, Sin, Can You Hear Me Now? and Opening Doors. The Journeymen’s production of Shakespeare’s R & J marks Brenton’s professional debut.

LUKE DAIGLE (Student 1) Chicago credits include Rumors (Sheil Park Theatre) and Picasso At The Lapin Agile & Moon Over Buffalo (Saint Sebastian Players).  Regional credits include The Tempest, Two Gentlemen Of Verona (Montana Shakespeare in the Parks), Much Ado About Nothing, Taming Of The Shrew, King Lear (Idaho Shakespeare Festival), Romeo & Juliet (Idaho Theater for Youth), Shakespeare’s R & J (Student 4), Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Lord Of The Flies (Mill Mountain Theatre), The Comedy Of Errors, School House Rock Live!, Seagirl, Paint, Sydney (Idaho Repertory Theatre).  Luke is a graduate of The University of Idaho and his educational credits include Macbeth, Waiting For Godot, A Flea In Her Ear, A Chorus Line, Tracers, Wit and Mr. Smith’s Bowl Of Notes. "Luke would like to thank his family, the Cikanek’s, and Katharine for their love and support."

CHRIS NECKER (Student 3) credits include Orphans (The Theatre Group), Rumors (Indignant College Unit), Journey Of Man (Word of Mouth), War of the Currents (Gorilla Theater) and Show Choir (Cornservatory).  Chris is a recent graduate from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University (Theatre Conservatory) and his educational credits include God’s Country, Destiny At Star Rock Cave, Cirque Noir and S.S Esperanza.
ADAM KANDER (Student 4) Chicago credits include Black Comedy (Piccolo Theatre), The Tempest, Playing With Fire and The Merchant Of Venice {After Dark Award for Outstanding Performance} (BoHo Theatre), When Jaina Met Jared (Livewire Chicago).  Regional credits include Arcadia (Kearsley Park Theater Festival),The Glass Menagerie (Michigan Youth Theater) and The Faust Project and The Zoo Story (London, ON Fringe Festival). Adam is a graduate of Oberlin College, where he was a recipient of the Nash Drama Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theater. His educational credits include The Pillowman, Romeo & Juliet, Tales From Ovid and Rhinoceros.

FRANK PULLEN (Director) received his degree from Columbia College Chicago with a double major in Directing and Arts Administration.  As founding member and Artistic Director, Frank has directed over 30 productions for The Journeymen Theater.  Some of his favorite credits include The Royal Hunt of the Sun (Jeff Citation), Edward II (Jeff Citation), In the Belly of the Beast– Letters From Prison (Jeff Nominated and After Dark Award recipient), For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf (Jeff Nomination, After Dark Award & Black Theater Alliance Award for Best Ensemble), Master Harold…and the boys (Jeff Nominated for Best Ensemble). Other directing credits include The Cryptogram, Steel Kiss and The Eight: Reindeer Monologues (all Chicago Reader’s Critic Choices), Vincent In Brixton and Lilies: or the Revival of a Romantic Drama (both Jeff Recommended productions) Othello, Agnes of God, On The Open Road, and The Colonel Bird. He also adapted and directed Jean Cocteau’s Le Livre Blanc | the white book which premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival and later in Chicago.

Other credits include The Servant of the People: The Rise & Fall of Huey P. Newton (National Pastime Theater), Mirette (Storefront Theater), Faith & the Good Thing (City Lit Theatre & Chicago Theater Company), The Wiz, Bent, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, The Tap Dance Kid, The Sea Lion and David: A Rock Opera.

Frank has also been a lead theater instructor for the City of Chicago’s After School Matters Program | Gallery 37 Center for the Arts for the past fourteen years.  His some of his educational directing credits include The Joint is Jumpin’, The Wiz, Godspell, West Side Story, Pippin, Arabian Nights, Seussical The Musical, School House Rock Live!, and this summer’s production of the new musical Thirteen.


JOE CALARCO (Adaptor) directed the first production of Shakespeare’s R&J which ran for a year in New York and earned him a Lucille Lortel Award. He also directed the play’s premieres in Chicago (5 Jeff Award nominations including Best Play and Best Director) and Washington, D.C. (Helen Hayes Award nominations for Best Play and Best Director). R&J completed a celebrated run on London’s West End in late 2003. He directed the critically acclaimed world premiere of the musical Sarah, Plain and Tall at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York. He also directed Julia Jordan’s The Summer of the Swans at the Lucille Lortel, and directed Ms. Jordan’s play Boy at Primary Stages. He is an Artistic Associate at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, where he directed the world premiere of Norman Allen’s Nijinsky’s Last Dance (4 Helen Hayes Awards including Best Play and Best Director), Side Show (4 Helen Hayes Awards including Best Musical and Best Director), and the world premiere of …in the absence of spring…, which premiered in New York at Second Stage under his own direction.

Other regional directing credits include: The Last Five Years (Philadelphia Theatre Company, Barrymore nomination), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (The Shakespeare Theatre), My Fair Lady, Edward II, Suddenly Last Summer, To Kill A Mockingbird, Keely & Du, Educating Rita, How I Got That Story, Goodnight Desdemona, Goodmorning Juliet, Babes In Arms, and Godspell. He served as resident playwright at Expanded Arts, Inc. for two years. He is one of New York Theatre Workshop’s "usual suspects," a Drama League directing fellow, and has been a Joseph Papp artist in residence at Second Stage. He is a graduate of Ithaca College.

 Note: all bios courtesy of The Journeymen’s website.      

3 Responses

  1. Word of Mouth, on Chris Necker’s bio does not refer to the website that is linked.. Please research before posting things on the interwebs. Please remove the link. Thank you.

    • change made, Chris. Thanks so much for letting us know! Sorry for the error.

      Congrats on your widely-acclaimed show.


      Scotty Zacher editor, ChicagoTheaterBlog

  2. Thanks for the correction and kind words.

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