Through March 3
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington
It’s not a bong or porn. The contraband hidden beneath the dorm floorboards in this Catholic boys’ prep school is a nicely bound copy of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In a repressed world where every movement is dictated by a bell’s toll and days are filled with rote recitations of Latin verb conjugations and catechism, it seems escaping into the play is the thing. So, each night after lights out, four teenage boys whip out their flashlights and energetically act out the bard’s torrid tale of star-crossed young lovers.
“Shakespeare’s R&J” now playing at Signature Theatre, is a play within a play — both a male adolescent coming of age story and an edited version of the classic. Like the horny teenagers in the original text, the heat between R&J’s Romeo, the poetically ardent Student 1 (Alex Mills) and his determined Juliet, Student 2 (Jefferson Farber) is real. The lovers’ recognition of attraction — definitely the play’s most powerful moment — is followed by plenty of kisses and contact. Effectively divvying up the remainder of the parts are Student 3 (Joel David Santner) and Student 4 (Rex Daugherty) who is particularly uncomfortable with his schoolmates’ raging same-sex romance and does what he can to stop it.
Staged by “R&J’s” author Joe Calarco (who is gay), the production (Signature’s first-ever in the round) is beautiful to watch. Impeccably rehearsed, the appealingly boyish cast moves nonstop with manic energy and teenage boy horseplay, while never missing a cue or bit of business. James Kronzer’s impressively spare-yet-rich wood set is gorgeously lit by Chris Lee who slyly creates Verona’s romantic lattices, shadows and misty rain showers without a drop of water.
As the four students become increasingly involved in the play, they shed their jackets, ties, sweater vests and inhibitions, taking their bodies and emotions far away from their stultifyingly structured days. And when they reach the end of the of Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy, will they return lockstep to a buttoned-down life of bells and indoctrination? Or will each choose his own way?
Though entirely unsubtle, “R&J’s” ending is undeniably affirming.
Through March 2
No Rules Theatre Company
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington
If you’re into farce, there’s a humdinger titled “Black Comedy” running concurrently next door in Signature’s more intimate ARK Theatre. Mounted by No Rules Theatre Company, the spirited production marks the beginning of an enviable three-year residency at Signature for the young company.
Penned by British playwright Peter Shaffer, the 1966 romp takes place mostly in the dark. Up-and-coming artist Brindsley (Jerzy Gwiazdowski) and his facile but connected girlfriend Carol (Kathryn Saffell) are planning a special gathering in which Brindsley will both meet Carol’s very conservative father Colonel Melkett (Matthew R. Wilson) and show his sculptures to a rich German art collector. But all goes wrong when the building’s main fuse blows leaving the hosts and their guests in total darkness. In the playwright’s brilliantly reversed conceit, the stage is illuminated when the lights are out, and is darkened when the lights are meant to be on, allowing us to see the awkwardness and hilarity of an evening spent without light.
All the usual farce stock players are on hand: In addition to the wily young man, dim debutante and her stuffy colonel father, there’s the spinster Miss Furnival (Lisa Hodsoll) who more than loosens up after accidentally downing a few drinks in the dark; Harold Gorringe (Brian Sutow), the campy gay neighbor with a penchant for old China and younger men; and a sensitive repairman with an eye for art. Also there’s Brindsley’s clever, ex-lover Clea (Dorea Schmidt), a part written by Shaffer especially for his pal Maggie Smith most presently of TV’s “Downton Abbey” fame.
The very able cast is game indeed, ready and willing to fall over chairs and bump into walls in the dark. There’s an especially wonderful mid-play sequence in which Gwiazdowski’s agility and physical comedy talents along with director Matt Cowart’s amusingly inventive staging are shown to best advantage. While guests exchange middle class mundanities, Gwiazdowski’s Brindsley moves a roomful of secretly borrowed furniture in the dark from his bohemian digs (compliments of John Bowhers) back to Gorringe’s piss elegant flat down the hall.
A review of “Black Comedy” demands a nod to Travis McHale for his marvelously upside down lighting: When candles are lit, stage lights dim. A shining flashlight makes things even darker.
The playwright Shaffer, who is gay, went on to write “Equus,” that disturbing drama about a boy and his obsession with horses, and the delightful comic-tragedy “Amadeus,” before being knighted in 2001. Though the LGBT experience isn’t central to his work, gay characters frequently appear in his plays.