'Shakespeare’s R&J' aspires to inspire empathy in this new twist on an old story of young love
By Halle Shoaf | Arts Angle Vantage Reporter
duPont Manual High School, Class of 2023
At one point in the play “Shakespeare’s R&J,” flashlight beams shine on the sleepy faces of four boys in their beds at their boarding school. They rise slowly at first, as they whisper to each other.
Suddenly, it’s as if the night has come alive. They chase each other and tell inappropriate jokes, taking on the roles of the Montagues and the Capulets. They use a red scarf as a cape, then as a weapon, letting their imaginations guide them. The captivated audience laughs with them and at other times is very quiet. The action on stage radiates the infectious joy of youth, yearning and love.
Brennen Amonett (Student #1), Shaquille Towns (Student #2), Tyler Tate (Student #4) and Zachary Burrell (Student #3) in "Shakespeare's R&J." Photo by Bill Brymer. Courtesy Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions.
“What they struggle with and want is so universal,” says actor Shaquille Towns, who plays a student taking on the role of Juliet in this telling. “They just want to be loved and accepted for who they are.”
“Shakespeare's R&J” is notable because Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions have staged this enduringly popular play in Louisville for the first time that Joe Calarco wrote and premiered in 1998. The production runs through Aug. 27 at the Henry Clay Theatre.
Michael Drury and Matt Wallace, the producing artistic directors of the theater companies Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions, respectively, worked together to make this happen. Pandora Productions, founded more than 25 years ago, is dedicated to telling the stories of the LGBTQ+ community. Kentucky Shakespeare is a 62-year-old company dedicated to The Bard’s works.
Michael Drury, Pandora Productions Producing Artistic Director, Courtesy Pandora Productions. Matt Wallace, Kentucky Shakespeare Producing Artistic Director, Courtesy Kentucky Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare’s R&J” offers this fresh retelling of the classic tale of “Romeo and Juliet” that includes nearly 90 percent of The Bard’s text while subverting gender roles. At a boarding and structured, religious school, these four boys discover a hidden book with the play’s script inside. Over the course of one night, they step into different characters’ points of view as they act through the tragic love story, altering their relationships.
“You know, for me, it does everything that I want Shakespeare to do, and it makes Shakespeare relevant, and turns it on its head,” says Matt Wallace, who directed this production. “I really think it encourages empathy, really allows you to put yourself in these characters’ shoes.”
The vibrancy of Louisville theater includes the smoke and thunder of the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s annual “Dracula” production and the outdoor performances during Kentucky Shakespeare’s Festival in Central Park during the summer. People pack into the seats to watch words come alive on stage. In the process, the audience becomes more than rows of chairs: it becomes a collective of people sharing a common experience.
Brennen Amonett (Student #1) surrounded by Zachary Burrell (Student #3), Tyler Tate (Student #4) and Shaquille Towns (Student #2) in "Shakespeare's R&J." Photo by Bill Brymer. Courtesy Kentucky Shakespeare and Pandora Productions.
Through sharing a performance of “Shakespeare’s R&J,” the producers hope viewers come to see perspectives of LGBTQ+ people, and how they fit into the struggle for everyday acceptance.
“It’s not the activists who are going to make your neighbors accept [your identity],'' says Drury. “It’s you — being you.”
By giving the LGBTQ+ community a platform to express their truth and love in all forms there is an opportunity for the unknown to be understood. And after all, it’s hard to hate someone you know.
Although we locals often coexist in close quarters, it is harder than you think to find a niche where we all converge. But at The Henry Clay Theater, there is an intimacy that envelopes the cast and the viewers. As time passes, the story of youthful discovery unfolds and provides the audience with illuminating moments.
“The educational component of our mission is very important,” says Drury. “I have often said that people are afraid of what they might see on our stage — and I wish that wasn’t true.”
Coming in, audience members may have certain expectations about their relationship to the characters. But as the boys on stage grapple with their emotions, as they question what they have been taught, “Shakespeare’s R&J” evokes a question for us: How can we not feel empathy for others?
Halle Shoaf, a senior at duPont Manual High School, serves on the board of the TEDxManual club, an organization that provides a platform for young public speakers impassioned in bettering society. Her play, “Little Birds,” addressing LGBTQ+ perspectives in pre-WWII Germany, was selected by regional professionals and performed in the Youth Performing Arts School’s “New Works Festival.” She participated in the Arts Angle Vantage workshop covering “Hamilton.”