Theater Review - After School Special

R&J sneaks Shakespeare into prep school

The least edgy aspect of Shakespeare’s R&J is the Alliance Theatre’s promotional tag-line claiming how edgy it is. “It’s not your grandmother’s Shakespeare” makes a rather hollow attempt to attract young audiences.

It’s not like teens have never encountered wild, high-concept Shakespeare. In 1996 Baz Luhrmann had a commercial hit with his modernized, attention-deficient film of Romeo + Juliet. The Alliance offers a different take on the play, with four young male actors reading all the parts. And even that’s not so innovative on Atlanta stages: R&J cast member Nathan Mobley belonged to the cast of PushPush Theater’s four-actor treatment of the play, which featured different Romeos from scene to scene.

For Shakespeare’s R&J, playing on the Alliance Hertz Stage, Joe Calarco’s adaptation and Kent Gash’s direction bring provocative ideas that invite new perspective on the play. But there’s a gulf between Shakespeare’s play and Colarco’s concept, and Gash’s production falls into it.

Kareem Ferguson, Michael Bakkensen, Nathan Mobley and Thomas Neal Antwon Ghant play a quartet of nameless prep school students. The location is an all-male prep school; the time is indeterminate. As they conjugate Latin verbs and recite antiquated lessons on gender roles (“Without women, men assume a savage state”), the school seems a product of the buttoned-up ’50s, but the students’ bits of slang and beatbox sound effects are wholly contemporary.

The boys marvel at a copy of Romeo and Juliet like it’s a bottle of whiskey smuggled onto the campus, and they find Shakespeare’s words every bit as intoxicating. At first they haltingly read the words, then robustly perform them, noting how modern it sometimes sounds.

Ghant and Mobley camp up the female roles in Juliet’s first scene but are startled when Bakkensen gives a sensitive, “straight” portrayal of Juliet. And they’re even more taken aback when Bakkensen’s Juliet and Kareem Ferguson’s Romeo show apparently unfeigned devotion to each other.

The thematic conceit of Colarco’s adaptation finds a parallel between the feuding Montagues and Capulets and the homophobia of Ghant and Mobley’s characters: In each case, Romeo and Juliet’s love faces societal opposition. R&J doesn’t treat it consistently, though. In an early scene as Mercutio, Mobley almost kisses Ferguson, and it’s hard to figure how he could be so comfortable with it one minute, and so outraged the next.

Mobley’s other roles include Friar Laurence, and he proves the show’s most forceful performer. Mobley’s student furiously objects to the wedding scene, even ripping out and burning the pages from the text.

R&J has a spare setting, with simple benches for furniture and a metal scaffolding for the balcony scene. But the props are more anachronistic, like the seriously irritating coach’s whistle separating scenes, or the flashlights that illuminate darkened moments. Scot J. Mann’s fight arrangements wittily evoke West Side Story, but the use of red streamers instead of knives for the duel scenes feels self-conscious.

In the second act, oddly enough, the modern asides and conceptual gimmicks disappear. The actors merely sprint through the mechanics of Romeo and Juliet’s suicides, which feel unusually contrived, and the histrionic moments fall flat.

It’s more charitable to think of Ferguson and Bakkensen not as playing the roles but playing young men discovering the roles. Bakkensen’s Juliet can come across as moony and dim. He’s better at grim resolve, like when Juliet smiles at the prospect of poisoning herself.

R&J ends on a note of reconciliation by borrowing some lines from one of Shakespeare’s comedies. It’s hard to know how to square R&J’s resolution with Romeo and Juliet’s grim outcome. R&J has so much energy and creativity in its first act that perhaps the concept makes more sense as a one-act show that ends with the play’s wedding. As it is, Gant’s production splits your emotional investment between Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and the young men playing them, and both groups ultimately get short-changed. Shakespeare’s R&J resists categorization, not fully being either a tragedy, a comedy or a youthful coming-out story. Instead, it just feels incomplete.