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Shakespeare's R&J

By Roger McBain, Evansville Courier & Press
October 15, 2011

With the world a stage, Romeo and Juliet are on the move

William Shakespeare told us four centuries ago that the world was a stage.

Since then, generations of directors have taken that challenge, transporting “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Mid-summer Night’s Dream” and more of the Bard’s works out of the theater, into the parks, onto the streets and up onto the screen in an array of adaptations and interpretations.

Joe Calarco may be the first, however, to move Shakespeare’s best-known love story into an attic and out of the closet.

Director Elliot Wasserman’s team of players, designers and technicians explore that approach with wit, invention and feeling in the University of Southern Indiana Theatre’s production of Calarco’s “Shakespeare’s R&J.”

This adaptation relies on the story and the language of Shakespeare’s original, along with excerpts from his sonnets and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and lofts them into a parochial boys school attic in the 1950s to explore another kind of forbidden love.

That’s were four blazered boys retreat after class and, in this case, after lights out. They go there to escape their rote regimen of daily lessons drilling them in everything from Latin conjugations to geometry laws to life’s prescribed roles for men and women.

In an act of rebellion and escape, the four take to the attic to read and act out their own clandestine performance of “Romeo and Juliet.” They start out in school sweaters, ties and blazers, reading from a leather-bound volume. As they get into the story, however, they drop the book, the ties and the blazers and scavenge the attic for inventive props and costume bits to portray all the men and women in the play.

Their production begins as a juvenile burlesque, with broad, bawdy, oversexed portrayals, rough-and-tumble battles and lines delivered in a hipster, beatnik patter or with a pelvis-thrusting, Elvis Presley drawl and swagger.

The drama intensifies, however, when the boys playing Romeo and Juliet embrace their roles on a level that seems too convincing for comfort for the remainder of the cast.

They play numerous roles, but Craig Patterson and Kaleb Sullivan set the stage for all the characters’ revelations with their respective performances as Romeo and Juliet. Their characters’ joint journey from nervous, uncertain yearnings to fully realized love for one another seems natural, convincing and at home in Shakespeare’s story and language.

Julian Velasquez and Patrick Litteken deliver solid support in the rest of the roles, playing with, reacting to and responding to their friends’ performances.

The cast handled the Shakespearean language fluently in this play within a play, with only a couple of flubbed lines in the opening night performance, which ran 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.

Eric Cope’s evocative lighting design plays dynamically over Robert Broadbent’s rough-hewn, raftered attic set design, but one effect, lighting up sections of the audience in direct, low angle beams, is a puzzling, blinding distraction.

Lighting plays a magical, pyrotechnical part in the closing scene, however, underscoring the ultimate moment of illumination in this timeless celebration of inextinguishable love.

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