On the stage, four male students in a strict dormitory school secretly start performing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Because they are students acting out a forbidden play, only a few chairs, tables, books and a big red cloth are available for them to reenact such a masterpiece. However, despite the hostile conditions, the four characters are completely absorbed into the play, ultimately becoming the characters themselves. Their bubbling passion, those unique to teenage students, charms and invites the audience into the students’ dangerous deviation.
Written by Joe Calarco, Shakespeare’s R&J, a remake of Shakespeare’s great tragedy Romeo and Juliet was first performed in New York, 1997. It is currently the longest performed Romeo and Juliet in the history of New York, and has premiered more than 400 times in areas such as Chicago and Washington D.C. In 1998, it was awarded the Lucille Lortel Awards, an accolade given to off- broadway theatrical pieces for its artistic value. Now, Shakespeare’s R&J has been performed throughout the United States (U.S.), along with Australia, Brazil and Japan. The show’s first performance in Korea took place in July 2018.
▲ Shakespeare's R&J Poster. Provided by Shownote
The play started with four anonymous characters—Student One, Two, Three and Four—stomping and walking around the stage. Their movements were all synchronized with their emotions, leaving thoughts and individuality nowhere to be found. However, the only time the students, who seemed as if they were identical products created in a factory, were invigorated was when they were rehearsing the prohibited tragic romance literature Romeo and Juliet. The important scenes, including the balcony scene, duels and deaths, were reinterpreted through the four characters’ hands.
Interaction with the Audience
One of the main characteristics of this play was its communicative nature. Stage props were located between the seats, and the actors constantly strode across the whole theater so all viewers, regardless of their seats, could effectively enjoy the play. Unfortunately, there was not much direct interaction with the audience such as Question and Answer (Q&A) sessions, but the actors’ expansive usage of the entire theatrical ground allowed the audience to forget that they were in 21st century Seoul and created an illusion as if they were taken back into Italy in the 1300s. The magic ended as the actors walked out of theater just like the audiences would have, much unlike other plays in which they return to the backstage.
▲ Four students tugging on the cloth. Provided by Shownote
Another feature worthy of attention was the physical structure of the theater. Unlike other theaters where the stage is upfront with all the seats in the back, the main stage was completely surrounded by the audience. With the stage in the center, there were ordinary seats on one side, and stage seats on the other. This stage seat was intentionally designed after amphitheaters in the Shakespearean time, allowing the viewers to immerse themselves in the 16th century setting. When the actors were done with their lines, they would come downstage and watch the play right beside other audience members, laughing along with the funny parts. The distance between the actors and the viewers felt merely existent, making people feel as if they are situated right amidst the characters.
Less is More
Tables were piled high over one another on each side of the stage. The set construction seemed to consist only of the walls and windows. Four chairs, one book, flashlights and a red cloth were all that were utilized by the actors. In the balcony scene, Juliet was on the top of the tables and not the balcony of her room, and Romeo climbed up the tables rather than trees. Such limited usage of stage props emphasized the students’ inadequate situation to practice theater, and thereby well capturing the young and passionate vigor the teenage Romeo and Juliet would have had in the original piece. Furthermore, the simplicity of the stage structure clearly painted out the four students’ love and enthusiasm for the play.
The charm of this play is that despite the minimized props, it successfully persuaded the audience that they were watching a new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet rather than just four students acting out the Shakespeare’s masterpiece. The main factor that enabled such achievement was the actors’ superb acting skills. At first, their acting was not as skilled, relying on the book to read lines and displaying exaggerated gestures. However, as the show progressed, they threw away the book and started to become the characters themselves. The acting became much more natural and the emotional bond between the characters much stronger. In the end, their acting is more than enough to make the audience laugh and cry.
A Red Cloth, the Chamaeleon of the Play
Appearing even in the play’s poster, the red cloth can be seen throughout the play. This eye-catching fabric, which the four students found in a casket with the script of Romeo and Juliet, is used in multiple ways—sometimes as a robe, other times as a sword, or a bedsheet. In the scene where the characters dueled each other, they tugged on to each ends of this sheet as if they are playing tug-of-war rather than a sword fight. The brightly illuminating red highlighted the burning anger and violence present between the two duelers. In another scene where Romeo and Juliet are departing, they kissed under this red sheet, maximizing their passionate yet tearful love. It well illustrated the various emotions red carries and effectively touched its viewers.
Romeo and Juliet is a piece that has been remade and performed more than a hundred times throughout history. Therefore, its plot may appear boring and unmoving to the public. However, this Shakespeare’s R&J cast another angle to this classic tragedy and thoroughly depicted love, anger, passion and grief thorough four zealous male students. Student One and Two’s love towards one other as the two star-crossed lovers was visible in their eyes; their harmless curiosity towards the prohibited was carefully depicted in the genuine enthusiasm for the play. It is certainly the performance that reappears in one’s dream at midnight.
Dongguk University Lee Hae-rang Art Theatre
2018 July 10 to 2018 September 30
R Seat: 55,000
Stage Seat: 55,000
S Seat: 45,000
Students are able to receive 30 per- cent discount for R and S seats