Although most people might think of Romeo and Juliet as a lusty, melodramatic love story, Shakespeare's play is more a tragic tale about the sometimes catastrophic clashes between parents and children. After all, the two lovers aren't thwarted by bouts of jealousy, sexual incompatibility or even Romeo's refusal to share equal responsibility for domestic concerns, but by a mysterious feud that has divided their respective families for generations. Likewise, the hotheaded Tybalt is quick to engage Benvolio and Romeo in deadly swordplay because, in part, he's been brought up to "hate all Montagues"; the prince tries in vain to control Verona's populace by talking down to his warring subjects as an angry patriarch or schoolteacher might; even Friar Laurence's well-intentioned double-dealing -- in which the holy father presumably engages for the sake of all of his "children" -- winds up earning him nothing but grief from his heavenly father.
Given the many conflicts involving authority figures and rebellious upstarts, a version of the play set in a Catholic boarding school doesn't seem like much of a stretch. Neither does the idea of having a quartet of actors play all of the parts in Shakespeare's R&J, an adaptation by Joe Calarco that was a hot ticket when it played off Broadway a couple of seasons back. All-male acting troupes were the rule in Elizabethan England, and groups as varied as the Royal Shakespeare Company and Boulder's Shakespeare Oratorio Society have mounted successful productions in which a handful of performers play multiple roles.
And on the strength of Nicholas Sugar's adroit direction, the Theatre Group's four-man effort proves both provocative and affecting. Peppered with inventive theatrical flourishes and performed at near-breakneck speed, the show nicely conveys the travails of four teenagers who take refuge from their strict surroundings by immersing themselves in the Bard's writings (including Sonnets 18 and 116 as well as a few snippets from A Midsummer Night's Dream). In addition, the two young men who portray Romeo and Juliet test the boundaries of their strict religious upbringing by exploring their nascent sexual attraction for each other.
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Performed on a mostly bare stage adorned with four black boxes that serve as various furniture pieces (they're even made into a knee-high railing for the famous balcony scene), the two-hour work benefits from Sugar's beautifully economical staging. In particular, Sugar makes the most of a single piece of scarlet fabric that represents everything from Juliet's skirt to a vial of poison to the drawn swords (and resulting rivers of blood) that pass between the doomed Capulets and Montagues. Scene changes, which are announced by the actors when a new character is introduced, consist of a quick rearrangement of the boxes and/or cloth, as well as striking shifts in Charles Dean Packard's moody lighting design.
Although a few episodes suffer from the actors' tendency to blare through dialogue that requires a more thoughtful, measured treatment, each performer forges a unique connection to at least one character. Step Pearce leads the company with a compellingly androgynous portrait of Juliet; Gary Culig's Romeo movingly rails against a deaf heaven while also striking a few gentle romantic chords; CJ Hosier is both hubristically cocky and uncomfortably at loose ends as the vengeful Tybalt; and even though Joseph Norton's Mercutio is more the stuff of unintelligible bombast than mercurial wordplay, he puts his strong voice to good use when impersonating the drama's authority figures.
The production could use more sense of discovery and spontaneity -- this version of R&J looks more polished and carefree than it should if, as seems to be playwright Calarco's premise, the group is getting together on the sly to indulge in forbidden activities. Overall, though, Sugar and company manage to suggest each schoolboy's inner rages without severely compromising Shakespeare's original.