One of those "give it a week" opening nights.
Joe Calarco's reimagined take on Shakespeare's tragedy pushes actors to extremes: it requires a steeplechase of split-second physicality and verbal chops worthy of the Bard. Calarco tells the story of "star-crossed" lovers with only four actors, a trunk, and a long piece of red cloth.
Even The Fantasticks has more props.
The play's set in a repressive all-male boarding school. They march, even breathe, by the numbers. They aren't just brainwashed, they're brain-dried by so many rules and restrictions that even Romeo and Juliet's verboten (and actually has been for its teenage sex, use of drugs, and defiance of authority). The only way they can express their spring awakenings - including for each other - is through art.
They gather in the dark like witches or a cult, enact a flash-lit ritual, pull a book from the ground wrapped in a red sash. It's R & J, which they praise like the bible and then perform.
At first it's not clear for whom they are playing, or how much rehearsal they've had (or where Kevin Anthenill's music comes from). Maybe they're like that urban-legendary group in 1980s San Diego who did plays in alleys and garages, without an audience, for the sheer joy of performing?
The ending answers most, but not all, of these questions.
The Cygnet production has the theatricality down pat. Director George Ye moves his actors with speed and grace and freezes them in arresting tableaux. And the shape-shifting red cloth practically tells the story by itself: it's a veil, a noose, clashing swords, a ring, distilling liquor, and Mercutio's fatal, "t'is enough" wound.
Sean Fanning's set, dominated by a blackboard and tall cross on the rear wall, affords a useful playing space. As actors peel off Peter Herman's identical, boarding school uniforms, they metaphorically remove emotional - and even gender - restraints as well.
The acting varied on opening night. The cast as a whole tended to enter scenes and speeches stronger than they finished them. Some lines got delivered at a Morse Code clip, as if they assumed the audience knew the play by heart.
Some actors missed opportunities with the language. Tyler Lea's Juliet did the famous balcony scene with almost flat readings - no spark, no surprise (there may be subtexts at work, between the play-without and the play-within, but the staging never made them clear: is the student playing Juliet repressing his own desires? Or is he the creation of the student playing Romeo? do they get lost in their roles - or found?).
Christian Daly's Student 1/Romeo refuses to march to the orthodox drummer and leads the exploration. Dave Thomas Brown (jazzy Mercutio, ancient Friar Laurence, regal Lady Capulet) and John Evans Reese (the goofy Nurse and macho Tybalt) show remarkable versatility.
In a way, Shakespeare's R &J is old-fashioned. At the old Globe Theatre, the original Rosalind, Lady M, Cressida, and Juliet were played by young men in drag. An "unseemly woman in a seeming man," was actually the reverse.
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town, playing through June 16.