Much ado about this Romeo and Juliet at Cygnet Theatre
By Diana Saenger
Cygnet Theatre closes its 10th Anniversary Season with the rousing West Coast premiere of Joe Calarco’s “Shakespeare’s R&J,” a bold and invigorating spin on the love story of Romeo and Juliet. Along with the excellent direction by George Yé, this tour-de-force ensemble cast is truly worth watching.
The play opens in a Catholic school with four students (Dave Thomas Brown, Christian Daly, Tyler Lea and John Evans Reese) stomping onstage as if they were Hitler’s commanders. They gesture as if in church, and recite prayers and a Shakespeare sonnet as one of them sneaks off to write in his notebook.
The first 10 or 15 minutes are somewhat confusing, but the intensity of the acting is compelling enough to keep you interested. Eventually, a school bell rings, the students loosen their ties, and they’re free from the classroom. Student No. 1, Romeo (Daly) pulls out a long red cloth and uncovers a book. It’s a copy of “Romeo and Juliet,” a forbidden read by the school, which makes the boys giggle as they grab a flashlight and dig in.
Moments later, the boys transition from reading the book to becoming the characters in it, and they act out the entire play. Just to make sure the audience gets the transition, Student No. 3, Mercutio (Thomas Brown) lets out a scream and sounds of the great outdoors perk up the stillness of the set; it’s not a school anymore, but a place Romeo and Juliet will discover true love.
Lea portrays Student No. 2 and Juliet, and Evans Reese portrays Student No. 4, the Nurse and Tybalt. The deeper the boys get into the story, the more passionate they become in portraying their characters.
Lea and Daly (as Juliet and Romeo) hold hands, kiss and court each other like couples do when they first meet. Likewise, Brown and Evans Reese, as bystanders and voyeurs of this secret romance, are drawn into their roles.
Unless you’re a fan of Shakespeare, you may find this play rather tedious, but the energy and dedication the actors bring is so astounding, it’s hard not to be enthralled. They are all graduates of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
It’s as if they share an acting gene in their DNA that creates an amazing harmony of rhythm, cadence and emotion hard to take your eyes off. Even the repetitive gasping and holding of their breaths is less annoying because they do it so effortlessly.
Lea has no hesitation playing a female, and his sensitive side balanced with a romantic urgency, puts not only his fellow actors at ease, but also the audience. Daly’s Romeo is a perfect yang to Lea’s yin.
Evans Reese is exceptionally delightful as the nurse, who must figure out how to please both his charge and Juliet, making sure her path is true and secure. Brown is strong in both portrayals of Mercutio and a Friar, providing a nice juxtaposition to the moments when the romance dominates the story.
If you go
What: “Shakespeare’s R&J.”
When: Matinees, evenings to June 16
Where: Cygnet Theatre Company, Old Town Stage, 4040 Twiggs Street, San Diego
Box Office: (619) 337-1525
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