Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
May 31, 2013
In a repressive environment, forbidden fruit can seem the sweetest.
So, in the stories of Sholem Aleichem that inspired the timeless musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” the daughters of Tevye the milkman go successively further away from the “Tradition” that ties their community together. And in Joe Calarco’s “Shakespeare’s R&J,” banned books inspire passion.
Set in a stern Catholic boys’ school in 1964, Calarco’s award-winning 1998 play is really an adaptation, an abridged enactment of “Romeo and Juliet,” spotlighting an equally forbidden love in the 20th century. A couple of sonnets and excerpts from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are woven into this beguiling tapestry.
Four fervent young men have sequestered a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, which, late at night, they stealthily retrieve from beneath the floorboards. In ritualized fashion, they take turns, first reading, then fully inhabiting the characters, bringing the romantic tragedy to febrile life. Fueled by testosterone and adolescent energy, they get swept up in the drama, coming into their own sexuality, in this cross between “Spring Awakening,” “Lord of the Flies” and “The Dead Poet’s Society.”
Under George Ye’s magnificent, muscular direction, an expanse of scarlet silk becomes the fifth ‘character,’ recast as blood, swords, a noose, a promissory ring. Yé is one of the region’s finest fight directors; his production is intricately choreographed, and the duels are some of the best ever on local stages.
It seems like this quartet of attractive, well-spoken, marvelously athletic actors have been working together for years. And they have. The New York-based performers are all recent graduates of the North Carolina School of the Arts, the alma mater of Cygnet Theatre’s artistic director Sean Murray.
Christian Daly and Tyler Lea (who play Romeo and Juliet), Dave Thomas Brown and John Evans Reese are all remarkable. The set, lighting and sound enhance the brilliance of the conceit, the language, the magnificent physicality. It’s thrilling getting caught up, along with them, in the power of the poetry. This is one highly visceral, beautiful theater experience.
You’ll also be transported at Lamb’s Players Theatre, whose “Fiddler” may not be the funniest, or the most Jewish in tone and tempo, but it tells the story with warmth and heart, and the inspired addition of a klezmer band that embodies the celebration-tinged-with-sorrow of early 20th century Jews in Czarist Russia.
The simple, flexible set is backgrounded by a fanciful, Marc Chagall sky. As Tevye Sam Zeller booms and bellows, but he also captures the humor and wisdom of the big-hearted dairyman.
Robert and Deborah Smyth direct with sensitivity. The singing is excellent and the story touchingly told.
Great works have emerged in times of oppression. Being immersed in that sense of forbidden passion can be both edifying and electrifying.
“Shakespeare’s R&J” runs through June 16 at Cygnet Theatre, in Old Town.
“Fiddler on the Roof” continues through July 14 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
©2013 PAT LAUNER