There are many adaptations of Shakespeare's classic play, Romeo and Juliet, but none of them are as relatable as this contemporary adaptation, a play titled Shakespeare's R&J written by Joe Calarco. In this adaptation, four boys without specific names attend an all boys’ boarding school with strict regulations. They are referred to as Students One, Two, Three, and Four. In this school, students are forbidden to read Romeo & Juliet. But when everyone goes to sleep at night, these four students gather around the forbidden book and put on a secret production by themselves.
As the play begins, four students march onto the stage in a strict for- mation, reciting the lessons from their classes loudly and in unison. They are all wearing formal school attire consisting of ties, vests, and jackets. The overall atmosphere is strict and orderly, and the play maximizes this setting by showing a student getting whipped during one of the classes.
In the beginning, the four students are not confident in their acting and stammer their lines. Student Two, who takes on the role of playing Juliet, is just a male student pretending to be a girl. This signals to the audience that they are still four boarding school students having fun. However, as the plot of Romeo & Juliet progresses and the emotions of the characters in the play build, these students are no longer simply reading their lines. Each of them becomes absorbed in the story and ultimately becomes the characters themselves. To illustrate this transformation further, the lines they say as the characters in the play begin to impact them in real life.
When the four students begin acting out Romeo & Juliet, the storyline is the same as in the original play. So, when the audience is watching this play within a play, many are already familiar with the lines.
Romeo, the son of Montague played by Student One, has to confront his love for a woman who does not return his affections. Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin played by Student Two, tells Romeo that a way to forget a lover is by finding another more beautiful one. Meanwhile in Capulet’s household, young Juliet, also played by Student Two, has a discussion with her mother, Student Three, and her nurse, Student Four, regarding the possibility of marriage. They talk about an upcoming feast and the possibility of Juliet liking her future husband, Paris.
At the feast Juliet meets Romeo who was persuaded by his friends to come and help him look for his next love. Unexpectedly, Romeo and Juliet are instantly attracted to each other. Without knowing each other’s family, they fall in love and are soon distraught to have fallen in love with their families’ enemy. However, love overcomes their families’ hatred, and Romeo looks for Juliet on her balcony and promises her that they will get married the very next day. Their marriage happens secretly with only a few close acquaintances aware of the ceremony.
Against the couple’s promises to each other to live happily, Romeo gets involved in a duel. This tragic occurrence leaves Juliet’s cousin and Romeo’s friend dead. Being newly married and feeling responsible for the death of his wife’s cousin, Romeo goes out of his mind and flees the scene full of guilt. Soon the Prince of Verona declares that Romeo is banished from the streets of Verona and holds him responsible for the deaths.
While, Romeo is exiled from Verona, Juliet learns the shocking news of her dad’s plan to marry her off to Paris. Juliet, distraught over the situation, refuses her father’s wishes. In turn, her father threatens to disown her if she disobeys him. To escape her impending marriage, she asks a priest for some help. The priest gives her a potion that will make it seem as if she has passed away in her sleep. The plan is for the priest to write a letter to Romeo explaining their plan. When Juliet wakes up from her deep sleep, Romeo will be waiting for her at the tomb. According to the plan, the couple is to run away and finally live happily while Juliet’s family believes she has died.
One of the unique characteristics of the play R&J is how the stage is positioned. There are ordinary seats facing the stage and there are stage seats. Stage seats are located behind the stage and crafted into the performance, like the other classmates’ seats. So, the stage where the actors per- form is in the center of the audience. Also, actors run around the stage and use the entire theatrical ground. There are scenes where actors jump onto the table located in the midst of the audiences’ seats and stomp their feet. By using the theatrical ground to its fullest and coming close to the audience’s seats, the barrier between the audience and the actors ceases to exist.
As students are not in the proper situation for acting out Romeo and Juliet, they use very limited props. This limitation enhances the play, helping the audience to focus solely on the lines the students recite.
One of the main props are desks and chairs. Desks are pilled in the corner of the stage and students jump on and around them. They have many devices since students use them to sit and stomp their feet on.
Other than chairs and desks, there is a red cloth. This red cloth is used in various ways. It starts off as a robe, is used as a bed sheet, and even becomes a sword. When Romeo and Juliet have their romantic moment, the red cloth is used to symbolize passion and love, while in other sword fighting scenes, the red cloth is used in a tug-of-war fashion. At the most tragic moment of Juliet’s suicide, it is used as a knife that takes from her last breath. As the red cloth is used differently in every scene, it can act as an entertaining factor for the audience to imagine how the fabric will be used in the next scene.
The play R&J leaves the audience with questions about whether they have just seen a reenactment of Romeo & Juliet or a story of four boys trying to escape the rules and order their school has forced on them by acting out Romeo & Juliet. It is probably both as the audience comes to realize that these students have become the actual characters in the play and the lines they say end up influencing their real lives. Having to wake from their fantasy when it is time for them to go back to school and turn their backs on the play, portrays the sad truth of reality.
Students in society often have to wake up from their dreams because they are not reasonable or acceptable by social standards. Although the regulations students face may not be as specified like a forbidden book in the play, there are many aspects that stop one from fully going after their dream. It can be parents’ expectations, social standards, or one’s self doubt. The play R&J delivers this in a sorrowful yet meaningful way by using lines from the classic play by Shakespeare. Since the lines each character recites are from the classic Romeo & Juliet, this play also brings to light of how the classic still speaks to the audience. It is also refreshing to see how four boys can play both female and male characters.
Many lines stay with the audience even after the play ends. This is due to how the play is crafted in a way that has more interactions with the audience compared to other plays. Through this, the audience can feel as if the actors are speaking directly to them, leading to a deeper understanding of their emotions: students who were not aware of their feelings of love, come to understand love, and eventually strive for freedom. Last but not least, by the end of the play the audience is left with many thoughts and questions that cannot quite be grasped.
Date: 2019.06.28 ~ 2019.09.29
Place: Lee Hae-rang Arts Theater Dongguk University