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Its another tweak of the Bards work on stage in R and J

Hillsboro's Bag and Baggage offers twist on Shakespeare's classic romance
by: Courtesy photo The four actors presenting a unique twist on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro are Samuel Benedict, Philip Berns, Sean Powell and Ian Kane.

Hillsboro theater company Bag and Baggage Productions has become notorious for presenting adaptations of Shakespeare that challenge people to re-think the classic pieces. Many adapted by artistic director Scott Palmer, the shows have tweaked the Bard in various ways, ranging from simply re-setting plays in different eras to re-imagining them through the lens of classic cartoons.

For its current production, Bag and Baggage is once again taking on a classic text and giving it a big spin with 'Shakespeare's R and J.' Written by Joe Clarco in 1997, 'R and J' centers on four prep-school boys who discover a banned copy of the seminal 'Romeo and Juliet' and make a ritual of acting it out together. Tensions arise when the boys playing Romeo (Samuel Benedict) and Juliet (Philip Berns) find their own forbidden passions awakened as they read the script, drawing confusion and anger from their classmates (Sean Powell and Ian Kane), whose commitment to the forced morals of their school cause conflict to boil, even as they continue to read the play.

The show marks the Bag and Baggage debut of its four actors and features visiting director Jennifer Dick, associate artistic director of the Glasgow Repertory Company in Scotland, which Palmer co-founded.

Dick, who had previously starred in an all-women production of 'R and J,' says part of the appeal of the performance is its ability to offer a bare-bones take on 'Romeo and Juliet.' This is an adaptation of a show most people know fairly well, but Dick says 'R and J' offers even the most avid Shakespearean scholar something new by presenting the text as a tale of discovery.

'I like the fact that it's Shakespeare stripped back to what is essentially the beating heart of 'Romeo and Juliet,'' says Dick. 'There aren't massive sets and costumes. At its heart it's about four people discovering the beauty and the drama and excitement and passion in Shakespeare.'

'R and J' presents certain difficulties in that it comes fully loaded with potential controversy, given that it's a romance where both male and female roles are played by young men and addresses the discomfort of the scenario directly through character reactions to the intimacy. Dick, though, insists that the initial jolt provided by the presentation will soon subside as the audience is drawn in to one of the most romantic and celebrated tragedies in history.

'In Shakespeare's time, boys played all the parts, so in one way it's a very traditional way of telling the story,' notes Dick. 'For me, it's about the discovery of relationships. It's not explicit, but it is romantic, and I guess people will have to take from that what they want to take.'

Palmer echoes Dick's sentiment, adding that, centuries ago, when theater companies initially switched from men playing all the roles to allowing women to perform, there was an uproar.

'It is amazing to me that our use of an incredibly traditional approach to Shakespeare is controversial. It's the way it started. There isn't anything more traditional than having a boy play Juliet,' says Palmer, adding that he looks forward to a day when the prospect of an all-male take on a classic romance won't cause anyone to take pause.

It would be the perfect opportunity, he says, for Bag and Baggage to re-think its strategy of continually providing provocative theater.

'Our audiences like to be challenged,' Palmer says. 'If we get to a point where work like this - the kind of work we're doing now - no longer challenges the audience … we will have to do more to push.

'That's what we do. That's the artistic mission of this company: to take classic plays that people love, and in innovative and provocative ways, crack them open for a new audience.'

Come to the show

What: 'Shakespeare's R and J'

When: Through March 18

Where: Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main St., Hillsboro

Info and tickets: Call 503-345-9590 or visit www.bagnbaggage.org