Director Joel Sass compares Shakespeare's R & J, Joe Calarco's 1997 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, to an act of "archeology." That word may conjure an image of fusty scientists standing around a big hole while wearing pith helmets. And though R & J's excavation of the core of the Bard's tragedy may have spared the shovels, the head of the Mary Worth Theatre Company found staging the play anything but a tidy experience. "I kept saying, 'What the hell have they done?'" Sass exclaims.
Calarco's script unfolds at a military school where four boys (played by a quartet of youthful adult men), perform a severely abridged late-night reading of Romeo and Juliet, splitting the roles among them. These young actors attack the text with the same sort of maniacal energy they bring to their lessons, which are briefly glimpsed at the start of the play: Latin vocabulary and recitations from antiquated etiquette books.
Because this is a Joel Sass play, these scenes look great, as does the entire minimalist production. The play's two properties are a book of Romeo and Juliet, occasionally shredded by the students in fits of actorly pique, and a single long sheet of incarnadine fabric. The students use the latter to wrap around themselves as costume, or they pull it away from their breasts in scenes of bloodshed, or they simply lie under it in a postcoital repose. A glow of red candles illuminates the stage, establishing a pretty clear palette for the staging.
Also because this is a Joel Sass play, the performances are as varied and eccentric as the setting is singular and stark. The four students, played by Brent Doyle, Mark L. Mattison, Joe Leary, and Steve Kath, exert themselves in such a way that they glisten and fight for air throughout the production. They march through the set, fistfight, clamber up and down the two chain-link fences that border the action, and, with unexpected frequency, fling each other through the air. They play each role pitched somewhere between hysterias, sometimes comical, sometimes raging, and always desperate. All this serves to give this old text a welcome sense of animation and punch.
The title characters (played, when the occasion demands it, by Doyle as Romeo and Mattison as Juliet) alternate between teasing and tickling each other, and the remainder of the characters do likewise. It's as though Shakespeare had written his play intending the main characters to be particularly spirited 14-year-olds--and, sonofagun, so he did. As a result, when the blades are drawn and the poison drunk, this tragedy, done and overdone to the point of cliché, suddenly seems awfully sad again.
The Park Square Theatre has undertaken the production of a damned weird musical, inviting a second voicing of the question, What the hell have they done? The production is Side Show, and it tells of semi-famous conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters, who can be seen lurking in the background in Tod Browning's notorious 1932 film Freaks. Park Square's musical is both spirited and sensationalistic, which is appropriate, as the twins' career of freak shows and vaudeville traded on the thrill of watching buck-and-wing numbers performed by sisters who shared a buttock.
The musical, by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger (and directed here by Russell) found a cult audience in its Broadway run--probably people who couldn't believe their eyes and so came back for a second peep. After all, the songs have titles such as "We Share Everything" and "I Will Never Leave You," and the play includes such scenes as a cannibal king threatening a song-and-dance man over the affections of a sister. In this production, Russell has decided to trade the title's cult qualities for a related spirit of camp: As the sisters (Kersten Rodau and Shannon Warne) go for a ride in a tunnel of love with their beaus, the lights occasionally rise enough to reveal figures in the background engaged in shadowy lovemaking. One of these tableaux includes two men, mashing faces with abandon as their respective dates look on in horror. Step right up, folks.