The premise: Four unnamed students at a boys' boarding school are rehearsing Romeo and Juliet. No dialogue has been added to develop the students' characters, and the original text necessarily has been trimmed since there are only four actors. The only props are a book and a strip of red fabric.
Calarco, who wrote Shakespeare's R&J 10 years ago but currently is doing more directing than writing, said in a recent phone interview, "I'm gay, and I tried to work against expectations of both the coming-out story and the homoerotic story. I ran in the opposite direction.
"The show is about two things: what it is to be a man - and how men think about women - and theater, the power of Shakespeare's play, without costumes or props.
"There is lots of storytelling going on," he said of his play. "This is a director's showcase, and each production has made different choices. You write it, and let it go."
He has "let it go" to Mauckingbird artistic director Peter Reynolds, who, though he generally sees his mission as more dramatic than political, nevertheless is more interested in R&J as a gay work, about "four boys in a repressive environment who find freedom through this play."
"Students 1, 2, 3 and 4 are characters outside of the Shakespearean characters," he said. "It's their story. I get a buzz when I see what happens when you look at things through a different lens."
The part of Romeo is taken by Evan Jonigkeit, who is straight but played Celimene to fine, swishy effect in The Misanthrope. (Reynolds, in a joking aside, says Jonigkeit should include a chapter in his eventual autobiography titled "Boys Peter Reynolds Made Me Kiss.")
Jonigkeit came to Temple University on a baseball scholarship (he graduated in 2005), and this athleticism suits the playwright's notion. Calarco says of his play, "It needs muscularity. A pack of teenage boys generates an energy - violence is always possible. Something happens with an all-male environment. There is a kind of mob mentality, a different energy when there are no women around.
"Forget about gender and sexuality: It's much more exciting if the characters are swept into something monumental and dangerous that was not in their minds - to have the play itself push them to emotional abandon."
Reynolds feels there is safety in playing a role, and also freedom because you're not playing yourself. But if the dramatic arena is liberating, it is also very circumscribed: Actors are always constrained by both the script and the director. Says Reynolds, "My job as a director is to cast well, and then, to paraphrase [British director] Richard Eyre, give the actors a comfortable, loving environment, and ask them to soar."
Reynolds came to Temple University's School of Communications and Theater from Chicago in 2002 and now heads its musical theater division. He feels that Mauckingbird provides a much-needed voice in Philadelphia theater. (The company's quirky name springs from the e-mail address of its managing director, Lindsay Mauck. Its "birdiness" appealed to Reynolds because both he and she are singers; Mauck handles the business side.)
"As a gay man," he says, "what saddens me the most about our society is that for boys any behavior that shows intimacy is labeled and shamed - don't cry, don't be a sissy - while girls are allowed to have best friends, have sleepovers, hold hands. R&J addresses that."
Despite disclaiming a political agenda, Reynolds notes that the marriage scene between Romeo and Juliet makes Students 3 and 4 very uncomfortable and resistant, and asks, "How timely is that?" He adds, "A huge percentage of people have read Romeo and Juliet in high school. And R&J is a sexy story - four good-looking, charismatic guys. It's a new way to enjoy a classic piece."
Coming in January will be another play you thought you already knew: Hedda Gabler. Mauckingbird will present Caroline Kava's lesbian adaptation of the Ibsen play, in which Hedda's former lover, Lvborg, is a woman. And once you start thinking about Hedda's anger, her disgust with her marriage, her obsession with guns. . . .
Trying to imagine Mauckingbird's radical reimagining of Shakespeare's tragedy, the mind tries out the new effect of old lines: "Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books." And consider how "star-crossed" may take on new meaning with this new pair of lovers. We'll see what "two hours' traffic of [their] stage" provides.
Shakespeare's R & J
Through Aug. 23. Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St. Tickets: $15-$20. 215-923-8909 or mauckingbirdtheatreco.org.