Elizabethan Theatre 2008:
Bringing Romeo and Juliet back to life through Mauckingbird's innovative production of Joe Calarco's Shakespeare's R&J
When seeing Shakespeare’s plays, audiences in the non-English speaking world tend to have the advantage of understanding every word because they are watching the Bard’s work performed in translations that give instant access to the stories, images, and even his language, without having to plow through obscure Elizabethan expressions and puns.  In Germany, I grew up watching Shakespeare at the Wuppertaler Bühnen, in performances based on the Romantic-era translations by Schlegel and Tieck of the 1820’s.  Years later, seeing the original Shakespeare performed in England came as a shock to me.  Even though I knew the plot very well, I struggled to understand the lines being spoken while seeing Romeo and Juliet in London.  
Since that time, I have seen more Shakespeare productions than that of any other playwright, especially in Britain and the US.  Quite a few of the directors tried innovative approaches to give viewers access to a language that is considered archaic and needs almost as much of a study as learning a foreign language.  In spite of these often very original approaches by contemporary theatre professionals, I still have observed people in the audience nodding off and only responding when strong physical gestures or unusual props accompanied the spoken lines.  I sometimes get a sense that Shakespeare's works have been placed in a mausoleum with velvet curtains, his dramas displayed as famous corpses that have been embalmed and decorated according to the whims of modern funeral directors who try to bring the dead back to life.  The audience is often expected to sit in silence and admire the master of English drama and passively accept the legacy of the greatest writer of the English language, but without seeing Shakespeare really come alive.  
Sitting at the Adrienne Theatre during the Mauckingbird production of Joe Calarco’s Shakespeare’s R&J, mesmerized by Maria Shaplin's lighting design which transformed the stage into a magic world, I felt as if I had morphed into Alice in Wonderland’s older brother who had fallen into a rabbit hole and saw a Shakespeare as I had never seen before. 

Calarco’s play took the main scenes from Romeo and Juliet and presented them within a different context, namely, a rigid, traditional boarding school—Eton, founded in 1440, and Harrow, founded in 1572, came to mind—where seniors in blazers were learning by heart mathematical formulas and Latin conjugations, interrupting each other, horsing around, and not taking learning too seriously, discovering Romeo and Juliet in the process, and becoming intrigued by the play, so much so that they acted out its key scenes in such a way that their own realities and Shakespeare’s play about the awakening of love interspersed.  All four of them played numerous roles, propped with just one red scarf, one large leather trunk, and two boxes, against the background of an old brick wall.  

From the very beginning of the actors marching in like schoolboys on the way to the daily assembly before school begins, I was glued to the action as if I were following breaking news.  Everything made sense, even though, as Alice would have put it, things were “getting curiouser and curiouser,” as the four young men, high on testosterone and their evolving sexual desires, transformed one of the world’s most famous stories into the kind of Romeo and Juliet that Will from Stratford would have loved as much as the Philadelphia audience who would not stop applauding at the end.  
Artistic Director Peter Reynolds, recently appointed Director of Musical Theatre at Temple University, created a fast-paced production where there was no room—not even for one second—for anyone in the audience to doze off.  He and his troupe made sure that every phrase was made visible and audible in such a way that even those who had never seen a Shakespeare play would understand.  The energy of the four actors matched that of the Olympic gymnastics team in Beijing.  During many moments, the audience gasped when the cast performed with a speed and a strength that usually only highly trained, disciplined, and motivated athletes display.  In parts, the four young men even worked as fast and as powerfully as the artists of the famous Cirque du Soleil.
When I asked Reynolds—one of this year's nominees for the prestigious F. Otto Haas Award for Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist Award—about his directing method, he told me that he gives his actors as much freedom as possible within the framework of the text, as he believes in being faithful to the original script.  As a result of such an encouragement for the actors to bring a great deal of their life and experiences into the play, we saw a wide range of acting and movements that created a rich tableau, which, within seconds, turned  into a kaleidoscope, where each shard presented another aspect of the power of Shakespeare’s drama.
The director managed to present even very sensitive scenes with a great maturity. In a moment of sexual discovery, Juliet (Conrad Ricamora) very gently, and for just a few seconds, probes into her undergarment.  Nothing was said, but with that symbolic gesture, Juliet matured from a little girl to a young woman.  Romeo (the handsome Evan Jonigkeit), the actor who most likely could become one of the stars on a series like The Young and the Restless, and whose physical presence and acting demands attention, wooed Juliet more effectively than any Romeo I have ever seen in Europe or America.  After Romeo’s gentle kiss of Juliet, the school bell rang loudly, and the play-within-a-play ended abruptly.  At the end, the playwright used the last scene to have Romeo recite Puck’s famous soliloquy from Midsummer Night’s Dream, “if we shadows have offended”—an apology not necessary for that evening’s sold out crowd, although some traditionalists and purists may take issue with the way the playwright cut and then spliced together the world’s most famous love story.
Newton Buchanan, one of the most prolific young actors at the Hedgerow Theatre (with over 30 productions under his belt in the last few years) added great energy to an already high-voltage production, for example, when he presented an African-American version of Lady Capulet.   The slim and young Nicholas Park played the overweight, old Nurse (and other roles) so convincingly that he did not need any padding or props, other than the red scarf which Calarco had written into the script to serve many functions, including a torch, a bouquet of flowers, a ring, wine, blood, a symbol of royalty, etc.  Through the Mauckingbird production, anyone who has not studied the famous Shakespeare's Bawdy by Prof. Eric Partridge now had a chance to see those definitions and interpretations applied in very vivid ways through the non-stop sequence of gestures and vigorous movements of those four actors who brought the Elizabethan Shakespeare into our own time so that, like the groundlings of the 1600’s, we could now understand the many innuendos and ambiguities of Shakespeare’s language.  
The only concern I had about this production was the way these upper-class boarding school seniors were dressed.  Afterwards, when I asked Lindsay Mauck, the managing director, I learned that this young company on a shoestring budget was given the “Scottish ties” as a donation.  At a traditional boarding school, the students would most likely not only wear classy jackets and trousers, but they would also wear the same type of shoes—not modern sneakers.  However, when the four young men at the Adrienne tore off their blazers, their ties, their shoes, and opened their shirts, they created a testosterone-laden atmosphere on stage where, within seconds, one could almost see their hormones boiling to the surface.  
In Shakespeare’s R&J, four young actors played fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, rivals, and all the other characters from one of Shakespeare’s most widely performed plays without any awkward moments or transitions, thanks to a script that used film techniques, cutting from one powerful scene to another, often with only a few seconds per scene but without the caricature-like characteristics of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged.  While the latter sets out to entertain, Calarco’s play provides access to an Elizabethan drama as I have never seen it done before—creating “Elizabethan Theatre 2008.”  
As a professor of English and Communications who is frequently searching for ways to introduce Shakespeare and other great writers to my students, it was a joy and a revelation to see that it is possible to make Shakespeare accessible.  I only regret that the semester hasn’t started yet, because otherwise, I would send all my students and their friends to see this production, which I consider one of the best I have seen in Philadelphia this year.  The students would most likely relate to the physical aspect of this production as much as to the budding love story and the artistic and very human aspects which Reynolds and this cast brought out: Shakespeare for young people, by young people, and a delight to watch for anyone, irrespective of age, sexual orientation, and educational background.  
Henrik Eger, Ph.D.