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


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