Is it love at first sight for 'R&J;' audience?


A Towson University production of R&J;, a play that puts the words of Romeo and his beloved Juliet into the mouths of four Catholic schoolboys, is one of four plays to make the national finals of the American College Theater Festival.

It is Towson's first such honor in the 35-year history of the festival and earns the troupe a weeklong stay in Washington (April 14-20) and the opportunity to perform R&J; (what's in a name, anyway?) at the Kennedy Center.

It's a rose that might never have smelled so sweet.

"I picked up the script on a whim," said Jurgen Hooper, a junior who plays Student No. 1 in R&J.; "I read through it and I thought it was absolutely brilliant because of the way the story of Romeo and Juliet integrates itself into these boys' lives."

Hooper first brought the script to Towson theater faculty member Steve Satta, asking Satta to sponsor the play. It was an unusual request, Satta said, since Towson's student directors, rather than its actors, usually propose the semesters' plays.

Still, after seeing the script, the theater department and the department of fine arts and communication at Towson were extremely open to the idea.

"We knew this wasn't going to be a vanity piece," Satta said. "The students wanted to do this production because of the message, not so they could be the stars of the show."

In R&J;, an adaptation by New York playwright Joe Calarco, "Four boys [Towson theater majors Hooper, Paul Wissman, James Flanagan and former student John Miller] find a script of Romeo and Juliet and perform it," said Wissman, who plays Student No. 2. "The point of the show, oh my God, there are so many. ... It's not a coming-out story. The people who are gay will take it that way, which is fine, but the people who are not will take it as boys who become closer and figure out who they are."

"It's how your life can change in one night; how one event can dramatically change your perspective of the world," said student director Michael Caloia, 24, who has since graduated.

"It's really just an exploration of self for them," Hooper said. "It's kind of a coming-of-age, but it's more like freeing themselves. It's ripping open everything they've been taught that's right. Ripping apart the structure they've lived in.

"This is not the story of Romeo and Juliet."

Satta gave Caloia the R&J; script the day before the fall semester's studio production proposals were due.

"I already had a proposal written up for another show," Caloia said. "After reading the R&J; script I pretty much threw away the other proposal. R&J; blew me away.

"The American College Theater Festival promotes itself as an example of the kind of theater that should be going on in colleges today. There are no trophies, there are no awards, but the honor of going is enough for anyone to forget about a trophy. That the Kennedy Center feels we are worthy to be on their stage and that we are an example of great college theater is the great honor that we receive about this.

"Getting picked is winning."

After its well-received September run at Towson, R&J; went to the festival's regional competition in January at the Kogod Theatre at the University of Maryland, College Park. Of 43 entries from Maryland, Delaware, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, R&J; was picked as one of two plays to represent Region 2. Balm in Gilead, from Montclair State University in New Jersey, was the other choice. (Nationally, eight regions nominated plays.)

Caloia had already been invited to the national festival, having been named "Best Student Director of Region 2" at the regional festival.

"I am quite honored that this was the last show I got to do at Towson," Caloia said. "This show was the most amazing project that I've ever been a part of."

"I don't even know how to put this on my resume," Wissman said. "How many [students] get to perform at the Kennedy Center?"

"It has been an incredible ride because each step has been so unexpected," Hooper said. "How far this play has gone from where it started amazes me."

The cast from Towson is scheduled to perform R&J; at 7:30 p.m. April 16-17 in the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The other plays chosen: ... but the rain is full of ghosts (Franklin Pierce College), The Laramie Project (Sam Houston State University) and Training Wisteria (Boston University).

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