There is an inherent obstacle in producing Romeo and Juliet. It's not the language, which translates beautifully. It's not the characters, who remain strong even in the most Luhrmannesque adaptations. It's simply that we all know what's coming: the danger and lust, the longing and tragedy. We have lost the element of surprise.
This makes Joe Calarco's play Shakespeare's R&J a jarring piece of theater. Aware that we all know what's coming, Calarco's script approaches the text from a perspective of discovery, framing the tale from the perspectives of four boarding school boys who find a banned copy of Romeo and Juliet in the floorboards. They make a ritual of acting it out together. Hormones start gurgling.
R&J could easily be preachy, but in the hands of Hillsboro's Bag&Baggage and visiting Glaswegian director Jennifer Dick, it's explosive. The sparse cast features four rookies ably diving headlong into the story. On a minimalist stage, they behave like believable dorm rats, roughhousing and showboating, with Ian Kane donning an acoustic guitar between transforming into multiple characters.
For a while, it's like watching schoolyard kids playing Star Wars. But tranquility is violently shattered whenever comfort sets in, as in a scene where our Romeo (Samuel Benedict) and Juliet (Phillip J. Berns) lock lips for the first time, only to be met with fierce protest by the sometimes Mercutio (Sean Powell). The actors, whenever confronted with homosexuality, promptly snap out of character and into a dogmatic, militaristic religious routine introduced in the play's opening, with the phrase "thou shalt not" chanted like a boot camp mantra.
It's rough, challenging stuff that courts controversy. But as the play progresses, it's easy to become lost in the performances, to simply accept that this is the same love story we've seen: Until we're violently reminded by Powell or Kane that maybe this is a little more racy than the iambic pentameter would imply.
Were R&J simply a well-acted performance, it would be exceptional. That it manages to make fresh that which is stagnant and wholly invigorates throughout is remarkable. It reminds you why people fell in love with the story to begin with, before bringing reality crashing down around it.
SEE IT: Bag&Baggage at the Venetian Theatre, 253 E Main St., Hillsboro, 345-9590, bagnbaggage.org. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Through March 18. $12-$25.