Shakespeare's R & J, adapted by Joe Calarco and currently running at Stages, is a strange play indeed. The premise is the first oddity: An uptight parochial school in some unnamed place has forbidden its students to read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Hey, we all know how subversive Shakespeare is and how desperate those cruel private schools are to get that nasty English writer off the shelves and out of their students' minds.
Anyhow, there are four "wild" boys at the school who just won't take no for an answer. An since boys will be boys, they steal off to a dilapidated house and proceed through some weird ritualistic cleansing of all the school rules (lots of chanting and stomping in unison are involved), after which they break out the Shakespeare and begin to act it out.
Strange as it might sound, this story frame has some potential. After all, Romeo and Juliet are two very subversive kids, whose self-destructive behaviors have all the hallmarks of the current lost generation. But the show, as directed by Rob Bundy, lacks any of the adolescent brawn and ribaldry that the script calls for; even though lots of hip-grinding takes place, the stage is bereft of any of the teenage angst and abandon that pushes kids to do such things as marry a family rival, kill for a friend or commit suicide over lost love. These four boys simply aren't wild enough to be compelling. Thus, what is supposed to be a sort of New Age reading on a very old story becomes simply a long, drawn-out exercise in difficult language.
There is no danger here, no sexual tension and no real energy. The young cast, including James Lee Burke, Dustin Ross, John Raymond Barker and Drake Simpson, works very hard but can't seem to make anything coherent out of this prickly script. Next month Stages will produce the Southwest premiere of Refuge, winner of the 1999 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. If it were my money, I'd save it till then.
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Shakespeare's R&J runs though February 13 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, (713)527-0220. $26-$37.