Monday, June 22, 2009

New thoughts on an old classic

Performance: Shakespeare's R & J
Theater: 1st Stage Spring Hill, 1524 Spring HIll Rd. McLean, VA 22102
Metro stops: none, which is too bad. It's by Tyson's Corner
Genre: Shakespeare Adaptation
Cost: Tickets are $15 for students and $25 for adults.
Dates: Through July 12
Rating: 4/5 Starving Artists

Adaptations of Shakespeare can be a little silly. I once saw a production of The Comedy of Errors set in Malibu. As best I can tell, the only reason they had for setting it in Malibu was that someone had suggested that the production be called "The Comedy of Errors on Rollerblades". I think some people feel like they must adapt Shakespeare just because it seems so dull these days to actually set Romeo and Juliet in Verona, or Hamlet in Denmark. That said, we find from time to time an adaptation of Shakespeare that adds something to the play: one that teaches us something new about the work. I think this mostly the case with 1st Stage’s production of Joe Calarco’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, which he calls Shakespeare’s R & J.

His device is an intriguing one. Four prep school boys ditch class to go hang out in the woods and perform Shakespeare for each other. (I’d find this point hard to believe if it had not been so thoroughly explored in Dead Poets Society. In fact, this play alludes to that film so often that I think perhaps Calarco hasn’t seen it, for if he had, he might have avoided the comparison altogether.) But with this twist, we are put in the interesting situation of being able to watch these boys perform the play for each other. We feel almost voyeuristic as we watch them express their angst, excitement, and confusion though their roles. Calarco and director Mark Kirkstan bring some interesting realism to the story, which makes it less about two star crossed lovers and more about to lovelorn teens. 1st Stage’s mission is to produce work using actors who are making their debut as professionals or who are new to this kind of work. The four young men in the production are occasionally rough, but often captivating. I’d like to give props Alex Mandell, Jacob Yeh, Jonathan Elliott, and Aeneas Hemphill for taking on the material and bringing all their passion to the work.

My strongest complaint with the production was its length (2.5 hours). My feeling is, if you are going to do an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, then you don’t have to do the whole thing, especially since we all know how it ends. This also made the premise harder to buy, and I have a difficult time believing that they would not just have done their favorite scenes, instead of nearly the entire play.

I found the production to be fresh and engaging. The set was wonderful, and quite well used. The bamboo structure they had built created a sense of wildness that was both fitting for a forest and reflective of the mood, and the boys were able to swing from it, and climb on it in very intriguing ways. The show has something fresh to say, and a unique voice to say it with, and if you find yourself out in VA, it’s worth trying to catch a performance.

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