Theatre VCU Stages 'Shakespeare’s R&J' with Alternating Casts

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For its first production of the 2011-12 season, Theatre VCU is staging alternate showings of the same play, “Shakespeare’s R&J,” an inventive work about six friends in a restrictive Catholic prep school who discover and enact “Romeo and Juliet.”

The play originally featured solely male actors, playing with gender roles as actors took on female parts in the characters’ restaging of “Romeo and Juliet.” But Theatre VCU is presenting two versions – one with only male actors, one with just female actors.

The play, which Theatre VCU premiered on Sept. 29, has two more performances open to the public. The female cast will hold performances on Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. and on Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. The male cast can be seen on Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m. and on Oct. 8 at 9:30 p.m. Ticket costs are $25 for general admission; $20 for seniors and VCU faculty and staff; $15 for students with a valid ID; and $10 for VCU students with a valid ID. One ticket will allow you to see both performances on Oct. 8. All shows are at the Raymond Hodges Theatre, W.E. Singleton Performing Arts Center, 922 Park Ave.

Maggie Horan, who plays the part of Juliet in the female version of Theatre VCU’s performances, said the casts largely remained unaware of each other as they prepared, and the proof is in the contrasting productions. The sets, she noted, look nothing alike – the females’ set has an aura of fantasy, while the males’ set summons realism – and the line readings sound strikingly different.

Matt Johnson, who is directing the female cast, said the gender of the cast determines a critical element of the path of the play. With the female cast, he said, the play is about the characters finding their strength. With the male cast, it is about the characters finding their softness. Or, as he explained, it’s about the females finding their masculine side and the males finding their feminine side.

“For both casts, it’s about self-actualization,” Johnson said. “They just are on different trajectories.”

“R&J” provides particular challenges for actors because they are required to perform two different styles of performance. They serve as both contemporary characters, teenagers in a boarding school, and Shakespearean characters, navigating the world of “Romeo and Juliet.”

In addition, Stephen Fried, director of the male cast, said “Shakespeare’s R&J” requires actors to put themselves on stage in some way – there is less opportunity to hide behind a character. In large part, this is because the play centers on students close to the age of the VCU actors, addressing issues of youth and naivete that the actors are not that far removed from encountering in their own lives.

“For our lines as students we do have to develop our own personalities,” Horan said. “There definitely is a lot of myself coming through in my character.”

Both Johnson and Fried said the actors were ready for the challenge. Johnson said the female cast members have handled the experience “with aplomb” and called the experience of working on “R&J” “probably the most fun I’ve had as a director.” Fried said he has been impressed with the student actors in his cast and the “astonishingly good work” that they have produced.

“They’ve been really great,” Fried said. “They’re game for just about anything, and they’ve really dove in headfirst to whatever I’ve asked of them.”