Theater fans are anticipating Nearly Naked Theatre's upcoming production of Spring Awakening, but I'll venture that nothing else the company does this year will surpass its remount of Shakespeare's R & J, playing now at Phoenix Theatre.
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The bare bones of Romeo and Juliet (interspersed with other Shakespearean verse) provide the framework for Joe Calarco's passionate play in which four Catholic school boys read aloud from a banned copy of the bard's most famous tragedy. In a chilly attic that doubles as Verona, these repressed, rep-tie-wearing lads honor an old Shakespearean tradition of males playing female roles as they create an evening's entertainment that's all subtext. With only the help of a couple of wooden trunks and a length of red cloth (which becomes a gown, a wig, a dagger, and a bottle of poison, among other things), these boys banish the dreary restrictions of their stuffy school life with a reading that begins as a gambol but winds up as a lesson in loving not whom you should, but whom you might.
It's a rough-and-tumble play that grafts comedy onto a tragic love story and asks that we watch both what these boys are doing with Old Will and what reading his love story is doing for them. Director Damon Dering makes this easy: His cast recites their couplets with great passion and commendable clarity but never with the sound and fury of a trained Shakespearean actor.
And what a cast. Skyler Bean enters the stage as an awkward, hesitant kid and leaves it as a fully realized Juliet, having wrung tears from tragic lines and big laughs from Calarco's comic asides. Left often to brood and pout on the sidelines, Corey Ginsberg still gives a shattering portrayal of the last of the boys to succumb to the play's ardor. Before he crumbles under the weight of the play he's reading, B. Connor Verhoeven boils with a stunning rage — the perfect counterpoint to Brandon Wiley's graceful, touching portrayal of both the boys' ringleader and his counterpart, Romeo.
Dering's austere production further benefits from stunning lighting and sound design and David Weiss' striking lath-and-plaster attic set — three more reasons to get thee to yon playhouse, before what might well be this company's best show of the season is gone.