Shaquille Townes, Zachary Burrell, Brennen Amonett, & Tyler Tate in Shakespeare’s R&J. Photo: Zachary Burrell Photography.

Shakespeare’s R&J

Adapted by Joe Calarco
Directed by Matt Wallace

A review by Kate Barry

Entire contents are copyright © 2022 Kate Barry. All rights reserved.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, a small group of students gathers to find refuge and freedom in the words of Shakespeare. In the shadows, these students break through oppression to find connection and expression in their truth through the tragedy of star-crossed lovers. Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions have partnered for the long-awaited R&J. This modern adaptation blurs lines between reality and fantasy as new meaning takes form in a fresh and bold production.

Four students march in staggering synchronicity at the sound of a bell. Dressed in uniforms, they pray, repeat Latin phrases, and staunch school mottos. As night falls, the structure falls away as a contraband copy of Romeo and Juliet is taken out from hiding. The boys revel in Shakespeare’s sexual innuendos, puns, and wordplay. Soon, each boy assumes a role, and the distinctions between what is real and what is on the page fall away. The book is passed between each actor as they simply read the lines, quickly transporting us to fair Verona. The simple staging of bunk beds, chairs, and a large red cloth is effective and perfect as the performers walk a fine line between merry minstrels and young students. 

Further into the production, the love story between Romeo and Juliet takes on a new context as the students dance, kiss, and experience sex and intimacy for the first time. For every lovely turn of the star-cross lovers, the play turns rigidly towards the harsh real world of the militant boarding school in which the boys reside. Tybalt and Mercutio’s dual contains heavier anger as they fight to the death. Lord Montague’s speech is layered with patriarchal disdain and an oppressive chorus.

Brennan Amonett leads the three other students (Zachary Burrell, Tyler Tate, and Shaquille Towns) in the retelling of the tragedy. His Romeo is lovelorn with heightened emotional intelligence. Amonett finds a character that is able to express his personal truths and fall hopelessly in love without fear. Towns as Juliet is a logical thinker who bravely, if not without fear, trusts his heart. As Mercutio, Burrell is lively and fueled by hormones. His “Queen Mab” speech thrusts with teenage hormones. He also brings maturity and relatable frustrations to Friar Lawrence. Tate’s Tybalt is an angry foil to Mercutio’s clown. Regretfully in this version, Tybalt appears only once. I would have liked to see Tate sink his teeth into the Prince of Cats. Tate clearly has fun as the Nurse, a loud, boisterous caregiver to Juliet. While the play contains heavy, emotional scenes, Tate’s performance brings much-needed levity.

Some may turn up their noses at yet another modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. We have the Baz Lurhman version and two film versions of West Side Story. Heck, even my high school did a version of it with the soundtrack of the movie The Fifth Element back in the day. Joe Calarco’s adaption relies on the urgency of young love in a time and place of oppression and chauvinism. And I highly recommend you see this special production before the end of its limited run.

Shakespeare’s R&J

August 18. 19. 20, 21, 25, 26, & 27 @ 7:30 pm
August 21 @ 2:30 pm

Kentucky Shakespeare &
Pandora Productions
The Henry Clay Theater
604 S. Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Kate Barry earned her Bachelors in English with a Theater minor from Bellarmine University in 2008. She has worked with many different companies around town including Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, Bunbury Theater, Louisville Repertory Company, Walden Theater, Finnigan Productions and you have probably purchased tickets from her at that little performing arts center on Main Street as well. In 2012, her short play “PlayList” won festival favorite in the Finnigan Festival of Funky Fresh Fun. She has written for LEO Weekly and as well. Thanks for reading!