In high schools across the country censorship versus the right to read is still a hot topic. Every year nearly 500 challenges are tallied in the US against books accused of being secular, anti-parental, anti-authority, or lustful. The latter is often the most egregious, and a central theme in Cygnet Theatre's "Shakespeare's R&J," playing at the Old Town Theatre until June 16.
The adaptation of Shakespeare's story of teen love is set in a parochial school in 1964 where four students, banned from reading the Bard's work, steal off in the middle of the night to set eyes on this Elizabethan poetry. Anchored by a cast of four real-life former school mates from North Carolina, this production is easily some of the best Shakespeare you'll see in San Diego.
Truthful, comedic, heart-wrenching and powerful, these four men take on every role with understanding and an authenticity that is utterly engaging. Bringing a work that is more than 400 years old into an era 50 years past, this production brings themes of love and division into the modern era by exploring a budding relationship between two of the male students.
Shakespeare goes gay.
Christian Daly as Romeo and Tyler Lea as Juliet create a bond the audience was, noticeably, as uncomfortable with as their onstage counterparts. John Evans Reese and Dave Thomas Brown portray their classmates who are unhappy with the bond growing between the two men. As the storyline progresses and the drama unfolds between the house of the Capulets and Montagues, the friends come to understand the nature of what is happening and move to support the burgeoning romance.
Layered with thematic elements, writer Joe Calarco and director George Ye create a delicately woven fabric of lust, love, violence born of love, individuality and fate that is engrossing from near beginning to end.
The technical aspects resonated with these elements as well. From Peter Herman's costuming to Ross Glanc's lighting design, a thorough and visible thread connected every aspect of the show and tied together nicely in an angst-ridden bow.
The biggest surprise going in to this show was the change of heart by both the on-stage characters and the audience. I did not anticipate an audience that would be uncomfortable with seeing the relationship between these two men especially given the well-known storyline of "Romeo and Juliet" and the publicity photos just outside the theatre. I found myself scanning the audience at moments thinking to myself, "What did you expect?"
However, I most enjoyed watching the change of heart by the two opposite classmates onstage mirroring the change of heart observed in the audience. At the final and tragic climax, I could hear the audience gasp and a noticeable sense of regret and sadness could be felt. As the onstage characters did, the audience did too accept what was unfolding and found the tragedy in seeing the end of real love despite who might be sharing that love.
"Shakespeare’s R&J" runs through June 16 at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, in Old Town San Diego. For info or tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit www.cygnettheatre.org.