Recommended Theater: SHAKESPEARE’S R&J (PrideArts at Pride Arts Center in Chicago)

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by Tony Frankel on February 20, 2024

in Theater-Chicago


Four young female prep school students, tired of going through the usual drill of conjugating Latin and other tedious school routines, decide to vary their very governed lives. After school, one breaks out a copy of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and they all take turns reading the play aloud. The Bard’s words and the story itself are thrilling to the girls, and they become swept away, enmeshed in the emotion so much so that they break school rules in order to continue their readings. The teens of Shakespeare’s R&J perform the play as kind of a forbidden game which brings violence, betrayal, lust, love, and mortality into their own lives. Perceptions and understanding are turned upside-down as the fun of play-acting turns serious, and the words and meanings begin to hit home and universal truths emerge.

Beginning previews Feb 22 and opening Feb 26, 2024, PrideArts (formerly Pride Films and Plays) is opening this must-see theater, but this time it is reimagining the reimagining in an all-new daring production that moves the action from an all-boys’ boarding school to an all-girls’ prep school. Raising the stakes of an already highly volatile play is director Amber Mandley, Managing Director for PrideArts. The ensemble of Shakespeare’s R&J features Madelyn Strasma, Luz Espinoza, Hannah Eisendrath, and Isabel Lee Roden. PrideArts’ staging will be the first fully staged professional production of the play in Chicago in 14 years.

No one can deny why Romeo and Juliet has achieved cult status. Not only is Shakespeare’s comic tragedy one of the most enduring stories ever told, but it is a miracle of construction, containing highly relatable and seemingly countless universal themes and motifs that magically intertwine: War, bad timing, kinship, honor, love and destiny among them. Two teenagers from feuding families fall in love, but the ancient grudges and irrational combativeness of the Montague and Capulet clans force the adolescents to marry in secret. A series of misfortunes and hotheadedness lead to a heartbreaking conclusion, resulting in the possibility of reconciliation for the surviving families.

In 1997, Joe Calarco, a resident director and playwright of Expanded Arts, a storefront theater in New York’s lower East Side, presented a version titled Shakespeare’s R&J that took much of the Bard’s language and brought a most unlikely freshness and relevancy to the tale of forbidden love. Calarco took the strict supremacy of Verona’s male-controlled civilization—and its vigorous virility—and conveyed it to a modern-day boarding school. The play took the theater world by storm, having a hugely successful follow-up run Off-Broadway, after which it caught fire in various productions, and still plays around the globe.

Performed as written, Romeo and Juliet ranks with Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays, but since Peter Brook’s 1947 version and Franco Zeffirelli’s edited and cast-appropriate Old Vic production in 1960 and film in 1968, this timeless tale has been given countless reinterpretations and revisions: Just in the past few years, Stage and Cinema has covered musical versions (West Side StoryThe Last Goodbye), a high-speed rendition (Zombie Joe’s), vaudeville (The Four Clowns), a drinking game show (Shotspeare), and ballet (CanadaJoffrey).

Placing the world of Romeo and Juliet within an inflexible sheath of masculine-organized principles not only highlights the deep-seated nature of patriarchal Verona, but the four-centuries-old play becomes even more intense and immediate at the school’s locale, where verboten same-sex attractions spark.

The production team will include Shawn Quinlan (Costume Design), Brett Baleskie (Scenic Design), Val Gardner (Sound Design), August Tiemeyer (Lighting Design), Cecilia Chen (Props Design), James Stone (Fight Choreographer), Grace Goodyear (Intimacy Director), Elijah McTiernan (Stage Manager), Elissa Wolf (Dramaturg and Co-Assistant Director), and Magdiel Carmona (Co-Assistant Director).

Shakespeare’s R&J
Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
Feb 22-24, 2024 (previews); Feb 26 (press opening); Feb 29-March 24, 2024 (regular run)
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3; Wed at 7:30 (Industry Night March 20 only)
for tickets ($25-$35), call 773.857.0222 or visit PrideArts (seniors/students $5 discount)

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