Shakespeare’s Romeo tells us that being in love is a lot like school. Well, it’s a lot like getting away from school to be more exact. “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books,” he says at the end of the famous balcony scene. “But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.”
It’s a metaphor that must ring especially true for the characters in Shakespeare’s R&J by Joe Calarco at Fabrefaction Theatre Conservatory through March 2. The play, which primarily uses the text of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, frames the familiar action in a metastory about four male students at a regimented Catholic boarding school who secretly begin reading and performing Shakespeare’s play.
Its fiery passions and violent emotions are a huge departure from their usual daily routine of dull Latin conjugations and rote catechisms, and as they perform the play, it becomes clear that the students playing Romeo and Juliet are more than method acting. Their attraction to each other is real, and just as they can use the ruse of the play to try out some forbidden emotions — flirtation, seduction, avowal, first kiss — the other students, who are disturbed and angered by the development, can use their characters’ actions to quash the budding passion. The play was a hit in New York in the late ’90s: it ran for a year off-Broadway, setting a record as the city’s longest running version of Romeo and Juliet.
Fabrefaction has assembled an excellent cast for the show. Kyle Brumley, who was recently profiled as one of ArtsATL’s “30 Under 30,” does a fine job with the challenging task of playing a male Juliet: there’s nothing campy or showily feminine in his performance — it must be played in earnest if it’s to mean anything — but he nonetheless is able to capture a sense of the character’s initial timidity and obedience, which gradually transforms into a sense of defiance and self-efficacy.
Chase Steven Anderson clearly has a lot of fun playing the Nurse, and his evocation of that character’s fussiness, humor and doting adoration of Juliet are delightful. The play-within-a-play moves along fleetly (the students have apparently made some judicious cuts to Romeo and Juliet), and especially resonant are scenes of overbearing authority such as the Prince sentencing Romeo to be banished or Juliet’s father cursing her unwillingness to abide by his choice in marriage: clearly, at a Catholic boarding school, these boys have lived it.
A big problem in the production — and for me it was a doozy — is that incidental music has been threaded throughout: only a few scenes are played without background music. This would be a problem regardless of the choice of tunes, but it’s often loud or anxiously throbbing techno music. During emotional scenes, there’s the sound of swelling orchestral string music — about a 30-second, cloying, dramatic phrase looped over and over and over. The beginnings and ends of scenes are often punctuated by ear-splitting thunder claps, and there are strobe lights and other big lighting effects throughout.
If there’s strength in Calarco’s concept, I think it would have to emerge from a sense that the students’ performances are furtive, makeshift and spare: loud techno music and strobe lights are entirely out of place, even for the rambunctious masked ball scene. If viewers aren’t compelled by Romeo and Juliet (and it has worked on stage before, if I’m not mistaken), it’s unlikely that adding big effects will draw them in.
I’ve never contemplated smashing a sound system before, but I was tempted, especially during the final tomb scene when that damned repeating violin phrase started up one more time (and one more time, and one more time). Anyway, there are some fine performances here by promising young actors, but if there’s special strength or interest in Calarco’s concept of setting the action at a boarding school, I couldn’t find it. Not with all that music playing.