Once upon a time (in the 16th century), history’s greatest playwright wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
But what if Shakespeare referred not simply to a change of moniker, but to a complete change of gender?
Such is the case with Private Romeo, the “same-sex” re-envisioning of Romeo and Juliet from director Alan Brown, now released on DVD and digitally. The production uses the Bard’s original words, but the setting has been updated from old Verona to a modern all-boys military school, where Sam, played by Seth Numrich, meets and is immediately taken with Glenn (Matt Doyle).
They are among eight cadets left behind after the rest of their class is sent off on maneuvers. During an English literature refresher course, they reenact the classic love story, which eventually parallels and permeates their lives. Sam, in effect, steps into Romeo’s shoes, while Glenn in turn “becomes” his Juliet. Meanwhile, their friends, too, all act out their parts as the pair’s secret passions ignite.
Brown says his interest in this particular drama stems from when he was in Japan teaching English and journalism as a Fulbright scholar.
“I’m a huge fan of acting,” he said, “and I’m very driven by character narratives. One of the few English-language films in the school’s library was Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie version, so of course, I’d regularly show it to my students.”
He credits seeing all-male productions of the play — the first back in the early ’90s, called Shakespeare’s R & J, and another rendition in 2009 — with informing his interpretation.
Influenced by these all-male stage versions, he felt especially well-suited when preparing to direct Private Romeo.
Brown felt strongly about the quality of his cast. After all, the story contains some of the most renowned and oft-quoted lines in dramatic history, and he knew the strength, ease, and assurance of their expression would compensate for any challenges his performers might face.
“All of my actors were Shakespeare-trained,” he said. “I was very adamant in the casting process about only bringing in theater-trained actors who had Shakespeare backgrounds — and oddly, I’m the only one without one!”
He acknowledged that he’s not an actor and noted that this freed him up to interpret the text as his concept required.
“I like films that make me work a little bit,” he said, adding, “I think I took a ‘disadvantage’ and turned it into an advantage.”
As the love-struck Romeo, Numrich is completely empathetic and likable, bringing a solid sense of sincerity to his role. Matt Doyle does an equally laudable job as the object of his affection — he “who doth teach the torches to burn bright.”
Doyle recalled his introduction to the timeless tale. “I remember being so taken that it was still so relevant and contemporary almost. I remember thinking I could relate to it — as a 13-year-old feeling all those feelings myself for the first time.”
The film also features strong supporting performances by Hale Appleman, Chris Bresky and Sean Hudock, along with Adam Barrie, Bobby Moreno and Charlie Barnett.
“I’m so proud of my actors,” Brown said. “I think they did such a magnificent job!”
Critics and audiences seem to agree. The whole cast was given the 2011 Outfest Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Actor in a Feature Film. The festival’s director of programming, Kim Yutani, said, “I don’t know that that’s ever happened before. It’s definitely highly unusual, but the jury was so impressed by the entire cast, they wanted to acknowledge them all rather than single anybody out!”
The production inventively re-situates many of the original scenes onto the basketball court, school gym or chemistry lab and intermingles them with YouTube videos and lip-synced indie rock music, giving the story a completely new and progressive feel.
Admittedly though, not all of the pieces fit exactly.
“The most challenging part was really the most thrilling part,” Doyle said. “I think the most difficult part of it was putting it into the context — because sometimes it works miraculously well. It’s, like, almost as if it were written for an all-boys’ military academy, and other times we did have to get more metaphorical.”
This includes casting the supporting players in several different parts — such as when Appleman, who’s been firmly established as Romeo’s pal Mercutio, suddenly takes on the part of Juliet’s father and Hudock joins him as her mother.
On the other hand, some of these translations border on genius, such as turning the feuding houses of the Capulets and Montagues into rival dorms at the school. Most impressive, though, is Bresky as Glenn’s roommate, who very naturally functions as Juliet’s sympathetic Nurse. His frequent tongue-in-cheek delivery sets a fine tone for the entire production.
Although everyone involved was confident of a positive reception among LGBT audiences, Brown said, “We’ve also had amazing reaction from the Shakespeare community.”
In fact, last year he was flown over to the London Shakespeare Centre at Kings College, where the film was screened to terrific response.
Yet Brown hopes his desire to see a cultural icon like Romeo and Juliet reinvented and given an “out and proud” gay ethic will particularly inspire younger viewers.
“I really hope this film does help young gay people — and it would be beautiful if it could make a difference for all people,” he said.
Doyle agrees. “Honestly, I think if the viewer is willing to go along for the ride and knows from the start, ‘OK, they’re taking us on an interesting — different — journey here,’ then they’re really going to enjoy it.”
Stay tuned during the closing credits, when Doyle demonstrates his considerable vocal talents, singing a dynamic rendition of “You Made Me Love You” that will be echoing through your head for days.
For more information on the DVD and digital release of Private Romeo, check out wolfevideo.com.