Thunder Mountain Theatre opens second season

'R&J' puts new spin on a classic

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2009

For its second season, the Thunder Mountain Theatre Project will open two modern-themed productions, "Shakespeare's R&J" and "Dying City," in repertory this weekend at the Old Elk's Hall.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

"We are really excited to present these shows in Juneau, as they deal with important issues that we are dealing with today such as alienation, sexuality and the war," said Flordelino Lagundino, producing artistic director for the project.

"Shakespeare's R&J," which opens Sunday, is an all-male adaptation of William Shakespeare's classic love story "Romeo and Juliet." The play, written by Joe Calarco, is set at a modern but repressive all-boys Catholic school and features four young students who attempt to act out a secret production of "Romeo and Juliet."

"They're putting on this play to discover what it is that sexuality is ... to figure out those things or to rebel against this oppressive society," said Lagundino, who directs. "It's at an age where they're experiencing with their sexuality, whether they're gay or not, I don't know. ... People will possibly read that into it, but I think that's part of the exploration. I think it's important to talk about."

Despite whether these untraditional fictional actors are indeed homosexual, playing "Romeo and Juliet" offers the students an escape from the strict roles they are forced to play in society as well as helps them explore their opinions about women.

"It's really interesting to look at the female roles of the play played by men, because, for the students in the play, it illuminates something about what a woman is," said Ryan Conarro, who plays the lead, Juliet, among other characters. "The women in the play, especially Juliet, are way more than that, ... that a woman is supposed to be charming and a woman waits up for the man."

In addition to Conarro, two other actors play women: Lucas Hoiland is the nurse, and Enrique Bravo is Lady Capulet - in the play within the play. But don't be misled; although these men could no doubt pull off stereotypical high heels and mini skirts - based on their acting ability alone - they won't.

"We're not playing it in drag," Conarro said. "We're playing them as students playing these roles, so I would hope the gender roles kind of disappear and we just see people communicating with each other."

Conarro said he has learned much from playing Juliet and hopes his performance will speak to the audience in a similar manner.

"Juliet, I think, is a really powerful character ... just as, or even more, decisive and motivated as Romeo," he said. "So I think the students learn something, but I hope that the audience will learn something too, about Shakespeare's women, because they are really powerful."

Furthermore, Conarro notes the importance of examining how we, as the audience, compare our reactions to men playing women versus women playing men.

"I think, in our culture, it's so acceptable and easy for women to play men in theater. It happens all the time," Conarro said. "And then, when a man plays a woman, all these questions come up: How far do you go? Is it comedic? ... Is it supposed to be funny? Are we making fun of it and kind of keeping a distance from it in that way? ... Those are a lot of bigger social questions in there too, which are interesting."

Even despite its intriguing attention to the social questions surrounding sexuality and gender roles, "Shakespeare's R&J" is a fresh take on a timeless story.

"The audience will come and they will get 'Romeo and Juliet,' but, as the marketing says, it's reimagined and it's hopefully re-illuminated in new ways," Conarro said. "In this production, four people play all the roles with a very bare-bones design. It's pared down, and it's kind of a pure, clear interpretation of the play."

And although the bulk of the play uses Shakespeare's original language from "Romeo and Juliet," Calarco's adaptation - much like its abbreviated name - really does get to the nitty gritty, Lagundino said.

"He's has cut to the chase in a lot of different things," he said of Calarco. "He's gotten to the meat of the play, the passions that these people have and their desires, what they want. ... It drives to the end, to the death scene."

Overall, according to Lagundino, "Shakespeare's R&J" is a drama with, hopefully, a lot of funny moments.

"The biggest thing is it's really entertaining," he said. "In a lot of ways, it's a rollercoaster ride that the audience goes on. I don't think there's really a dull moment, so I think people will enjoy it in that way."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or

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