Paul Mason Barnes is not only a director of confidence and authority, he even writes intelligent Director's Notes. Anyone attending the current impressively disciplined Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staging of Shakespeare's R&J is encouraged to read Barnes' comments, which can only help to make the production more cogent. This all-male adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, the director informs us, is "a fascinating, challenging treatment of a familiar and beloved story." No argument there. It's when Barnes enumerates the "multiple levels" that exist in this adaptation by Joe Calarco that a viewer might pause to wonder if the director sees more in the abstract than he's able to realize onstage.
The premise here is that four male students find themselves in an attic (I think it's an attic, but nothing is spelled out) enacting Romeo and Juliet, which appears to be a forbidden play. I'm not aware of R and J having been banned in schools as, for instance, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been banned, but perhaps it has. I'm also not clear as to our universe. Are we in a prep school? A military academy? The playbill doesn't clarify, which must mean that it doesn't matter. What does matter is that, despite the stark intrigue of the prelude (classes, regimentation), the evening only succeeds in moving from the curious to the absorbing after the students become actors.
When that occurs, Barnes infuses an essentially bare stage with energy and passion. He is a wizard at making something of nothing. There's little more here than flashlights and a large piece of flowing crimson fabric that serves as swords, knives, clothes, vials, even Juliet's bier. Not only is Barnes' imagination seemingly boundless, but he holds a tight rein on his cast (Bob Braswell, Chris Landis, Bobby Steggert, Daniel Zaitchik), insisting that they ride the rhythms of the verse.
Last season Barnes made his directing debut at the Rep with Stones in His Pockets, an acutely observed comedy-drama in which two actors portrayed fifteen parts. Here we have four actors performing multiple roles. Now that this director has established his cleverness, it would be fascinating to see what he does with a play that contains real characters.
Because ultimately what's missing here are people. It's true that Romeo and Juliet is a youthful story that can gain when its doomed protagonists are rendered by youngsters. But with this monochromatic approach (the students are unnamed, they wear the same garb), simplification does not lead to clarification. What is obscure in the most elaborate R and J the Queen Mab speech, for instance remains obscure here, perhaps even more so, because there is no Mercutio to deliver it; there's only Student 3 giving us a reading of Mercutio. (Does it help to be already familiar with Romeo and Juliet before you attend this show? You bet.)
But ultimately these attic antics are not about Romeo or Juliet. Beyond the impromptu performance there are "covert explorations" (to quote the Director's Notes) of a nature that apparently occurs when males assume all the roles in a hot-blooded romance. You're likely to witness more touching, stroking and kissing in this R and J than in any half-dozen more conventionally cast productions you've seen heretofore. Perhaps it's simply that boys will be boys. But a likelier explanation is that Shakespeare has been adapted into advocacy theater. What we get here is not so much an attempt to clarify the text as it is a justification for a mindset.
Because advocacy takes precedence over story, midway through Act Two the conceit that underlies the entire production begins to wane and even Barnes' seemingly endless resources begin to lose their impact. Even so, some viewers are likely to find Shakespeare's R&J an evening of eloquence and beauty. For others, enjoyment of this theatrical novelty will strictly depend on their tolerance for affectation.