Photo by Cathleen Chaffee '99
Joe Calarco '92 brings a new slant to "Romeo and Juliet" with an all-male cast and revised text. Somehow, it works.
by Barbara Adams
As a senior at Ithaca, director and playwright Joe Calarco '92 made his mark with a standing-room-only production of Beirut, Alan Bowne's controversial play about raw sexuality, usurped personal freedoms, and, indirectly, AIDS hysteria. With his current award-winning off-Broadway play, Shakespeare's R&J, Calarco is still challenging assumptions about love and liberty -- not to mention theater itself.
In Calarco's adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy, four young men play all the parts -- from the smitten couple to the conspiratorial nurse and friar. "I'd always wanted to direct Romeo and Juliet -- especially while I'm young," Calarco says. "It's a young play filled with young emotions." Last August the idea for a six-man version was suggested to him at Expanded Arts, the theater group on New York's Lower East Side where Calarco is a resident playwright and director. The company, whose summer fare is known as Shakespeare in the Park(ing Lot), presents new works as well as classics with a twist.
Reducing the number of actors to five and then four, Calarco found that the play became even more dramatic. He also pruned the original text: "I shredded the repetition of the long monologues. But no matter what you cut, you're cutting gorgeous language." He added in bits from the sonnets and A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well as advice from late-19th-century etiquette manuals.
"I'd just seen the film of The Crucible," Calarco says, "and was struck by how a repressive world could cause sexual hysteria" -- just as for the young lovers in Romeo and Juliet. "Their love is psychosis, really: they're nuts, they're committing insane acts. This is not Hamlet -- there's no reflection; it's all blind action, blind passion."
Calarco built his adaptation on the concept of adolescent boys in a strict boarding school. He establishes this visually through the actors' plain sweater-and-slacks uniforms, furtive glances, and roughhouse behavior. When the boys meet secretly to read Shakespeare's play, it's clearly a forbidden act. Gradually, as the boys begin to assume the characters' roles, they find themselves addressing their own sexual feelings and fears.
A play about awakening sexuality, Romeo and Juliet has "real heat," Calarco says, which he wanted to capture in directing this production. Just as boys played the female roles in Shakespeare's own company, so do Calarco's gifted young actors, suggesting not only relations between men and women, but also among men. "I didn't want the play to be a commentary on homophobia or a celebration of homoeroticism," Calarco says. "I don't even think these students are gay. It's a story about pure love and passion, which have nothing to do with gender."
The critics seem to agree. Shakespeare's R&J, which opened last fall in the tiny Expanded Arts storefront theater, was warmly reviewed by a dozen New York papers as well as USA Today. Most critics commented on how gender-free this all-male play ends up being. They admired the intense physicality and power of all the actors, singling out Daniel Shore for his evocative and sensual Juliet.
"The response was more than we could have asked for," Calarco says. Influential New York Times critic Peter Marks praised the production, both in his review -- "It pulsates with an adolescent abandon and electricity of which Romeo himself might approve" -- and in another article on cross-gender casting. Of Marks's first piece, Calarco says, "I really learned the power of the Times -- the phone rang off the hook that day."
After 16 performances downtown, the show moved in January to the John Houseman Studio Theatre on West 42nd Street. The high-energy production is still very simple -- with black walls, a few black cubes as furniture, and a shimmering red silk cloth. (In the boys' hands, the versatile cloth becomes a rope for tug-of-war, a sword, a shroud, and even lifeblood dripping.) The play is still intimate, as this new venue has only about 80 seats. Calarco has directed in Ithaca's Firehouse and Kitchen Theatres and credits both for giving him experience with very small spaces. "Staging there helps you so much -- you're ready for anything."
Ithaca has been a resource for Calarco since he arrived at the College 10 years ago, a 21-year-old from Rochester who'd already tested out New York City. He began his studies here in musical theater, then switched to acting. "All my professors were immensely important as mentors; they believed in me. I was always encouraged by everyone." Calarco credits the theater arts chair at the time, Bruce Halverson, with giving him "enormous freedom" -- to act, dance, sing, direct, and choreograph. Of his acting professors, Calarco says that Norm Johnson offered him "a new way of looking -- he taught me how my plays could dance when they weren't musicals. Arno Selco taught me to fight for my work. And Susannah Berryman helped me see I could do work that meant something -- work that was powerful and political and personal."
Directing Beirut -- exactly that kind of provocative and meaningful theater -- changed Calarco's entire view of theater, he says, and helped him realize he wanted to direct rather than perform. In the years since graduation, he has returned to Ithaca frequently to direct -- nine local productions in all at the Kitchen and Firehouse, including his own adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird. At Ithaca's Hangar Theatre, he assisted with a mainstage production and directed for the summer Lab Company. He's also been a guest teacher in IC's voice and movement classes and hopes to return to conduct theater workshops.
Right now he's drafting a new full-length play. In the Absence of Spring is about "being young in New York City at the end of the century. It's seven completely different stories that collide, sort of a Robert Altman film on stage." His intent, Calarco says, is to explore "a generation that came of age after AIDS and how this affects their ability to be intimate in every way."
Calarco's immediate focus, though, is on his talented and as yet underpaid cast, to whom he feels great loyalty: "I'm used to doing and deciding everything myself, but I'd give that up so long as my actors are happy and treated well." That may not be too far off. Calarco recently received off-Broadway's prestigious Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding special achievement in theater -- an award created especially for Shakespeare's R&J because it didn't fit any of the standard categories. The play is running eight shows a week and ticket sales are booked into the summer. There's been strong interest in taking the show on tour, as well as to San Francisco and London. Dramatists Play Service, a publisher of contemporary plays, has made inquiries. There's talk of a film contract and Calarco has signed with a noted agency, Writers and Artists.
He is delighted by the show's swift success and all the new possibilities. "This is the way it's supposed to be," he says.