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NCTC's Middle East -set ‘R&J’ doesn’t transcend context

In the late 1990s, playwright Joe Calarco set his abridged, four-actor version of “Romeo and Juliet” (a tragedy about forbidden love between two teenagers from feuding families) in a Catholic boys’ school.

“Shakespeare’s R&J” depicts four classmates who apparently go off on their own to read the play aloud just for fun (in what reality might that be likely to happen?) and gradually get subsumed by their characters.

In gay-specific New Conservatory Theatre Center’s new version (the company originally staged the play 12 years ago), director Ben Randle imagines a specific world that’s dangerous not just for homosexuals but also for ordinary people: post-Arab Spring Cairo.

The setting is indicated by a note in the program as well as a blackboard with Arabic writing, a pair of keffiyehs of contrasting colors (cleverly, the play’s only costumes changes) and a quartet of actors of various ethnicities (a youthful-looking Adam Odsess-Rubin as Romeo, Taj K. Campbell as Juliet, plus James Arthur M. as the Nurse and other roles and Mike Sagun as the Friar and other roles).

This setting allows for a sense of danger outside the classroom: a bomb, ominous sound effects (by designer Stephen Abts). And it factors in our awareness of everything we know about social repression and incipient violence in the Middle East.

Of course, two pubescent boys taking on the Bard’s title characters in a restrictive all-male environment (or, for that matter, any two actors at all, in any circumstances) could fall temporarily in love, perhaps discovering their latent sexual desires, or just their inner Method actor — or merely thrill at breaking school rules.

And the Capulets and the Montagues could represent any feuding groups today whose enmity endures for generations.

Yet Randle’s concept tends to feel shoehorned in, especially since the script gives the players no contemporary dialogue, consisting, as it does, entirely of “R & J,” plus a few sonnets and snippets from other Bard plays and some interspersed recitation of rote and ironic classroom lessons.

But, as well directed and acted as it is (it’s crisply paced and choreographed on Yusuke Soi’s beautifully simple set, and the cast performs Shakespeare’s poetry with alacrity and a confident clarity), there’s something missing.

With the all the implications of this version’s context, we are never fully enough focused on the central action — the two boys’ slowly increasing, almost helpless, sense of rising passion and ambivalent self-awareness — to become emotionally involved.

REVIEW

Shakespeare’s R&J

Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. most Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 14

Tickets: $25 to $45

Contact: (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org

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