Which is the more remarkable fact of Georgia life in this unsettled summer of 2010: that “debate” among several candidates for governor should devolve into gay-baiting, or that the moment in a play when two adolescent boys become lovers hardly elicits a gasp?
Theater-goers are probably not the target audience of troglodyte politicians — nor are they a majority of the citizenry. Still, the generally increasing comfort with shifts and surprises in sexual orientation, at least among the culture-consuming population, is a heartening evolution. It is also the context in which Serenbe Playhouse’s al fresco production of “Shakespeare’s R&J,” which will complete its run July 23, 24 and 25, is presented and received. (Last month, ArtsCriticATL reviewed the new theater’s “Jon & Jen.”)
The play, by Joe Calarco, depicts four teenaged Catholic-school boys studying Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” We first meet them, tightly constrained by their uniforms, marching from class to class and parroting church commandments on the strictly delineated roles of men and women. Soon, in a free period perhaps, they begin to study and recite and then to act out the classic tragedy. Nearly all the dialogue is straight from Shakespeare; it’s considerably abridged, but the shape of the story remains clear.
Because the play contains many more than four characters, each of the boys takes several roles, not all of them male. Most importantly, two of them act the title characters, which means that one is playing a girl and that the two are meant to be in love. In the early scenes, there is enough testosterone-fueled jostling and japing to make these kids believable: tugs of war; simpering, embarrassed reading of female characters’ lines; knowing sniggers at Shakespeare’s phrase “pretty piece of flesh” for male genitalia. But the Catholic-school, pimply-teen setting mostly recedes, leaving us mainly with a spirited, unconventional staging of the original play. In Shakespeare’s day all roles were performed by male actors. But here the situational conflict is between the students’ repressive reality and the necessity that in portraying the classic drama they must transgress gender boundaries, several of them at least momentarily — and the boy who acts Juliet, quite a lot.
Somehow, the tensions this should naturally evince are only intermittently present. Since they are not explicit in the dialogue, bringing them forward falls primarily to the director, and here is where director Amy Boyce Holtcamp’s work should have been stronger. Too much missing is the sexual panic these partly formed young men would understandably feel, and the peer pressure against expressions of same-sex love (although there is a powerfully evocative guilty moment, just after the death scene, when the school bell rings and the boys jump to tuck their shirttails in).
The players all share an awkward momentary hesitation when Romeo and Juliet are about to kiss for the first time, but their fear seems to dissipate as the kiss is believably enacted — “enacted,” because the schoolboys, as Romeo and Juliet, act it well. But missing entirely is the subtext that the two boys playing the fated lovers have a crush on each other in real life. (William Shuler, above left, plays Romeo and Scears Lee IV plays Juliet.)
When this play was produced at the Alliance Theatre in 2003, directed by Kent Gash, we somehow learned that about them, through glances and touches, apparently just as they were discovering it themselves, and the kiss was an electrifying moment. Maybe that was simply a subtext that Gash read into and brought out of the play. Or maybe it has just become totally unweird to see men kissing, seven years later.
This is an engaging production by a fledgling theater. The drive to Serenbe is especially well rewarded by the performance of Scears Lee IV, a Newnan native, who plays Juliet with fervor and cunning; this young actor has great range and promise. The ultra-simple stage is in a small, wedge-shaped courtyard surrounded by tall houses; now and then you notice somebody turning a light on or off in one of them. The resulting acoustics are terrific, and the opportunity to experience theater under the sky in an urban setting — as did Shakespeare’s original audiences — is a treat.