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OutServe Magazine | April 3, 2013

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Private Romeo: Wherefore Art Thou?

Private Romeo: Wherefore Art Thou?

Movie Night with Faith and Liza

By Liza Swart

Okay, so this is one you need to stick with for the long haul.

Upon getting a look at the slick packaging and platitudes from major media (CRITIC’S PICK! says the New York Times), I’ll admit, I had higher hopes. I say higher, and not high, because let’s face it–gay and lesbian films are not typically known for high budgets, high drama or high acting. At the beginning of Private Romeo, it looked par for the course, until…

“Is this whole thing in Shakespeare?” Faith asked.

I was having my own problems.

“Are they trying to say there’s only eight men at a military academy? That dress-right-dress is all jacked up. Are they wearing berets or not?”

You could say we were thoroughly distracted, and it wasn’t by the hot-and-heavy 2-on-2 pickup games of hoops.

Private Romeo starts slow. So slow, in fact, that after Faith wondered aloud what the reason was to keep watching, she asked me to continue on alone, later. Plus that part was spooky and confusing. Then again, who doesn’t bust rhymes in a darkened stairwell while hanging out with their possibly schizophrenic friends on the way to a poker game?

Done. I continued on alone.

At the subsequent card party, I finally figured out who Romeo (played by Seth Numrich) and Juliet (Matt Doyle) were. Their gentle flirting (I like your kicks, man. Is that the LIVESTRONG bracelet?) could have been crime-worthy, but ended up being strangely endearing.

“Oh, so that means they both die?” Faith asked, paying attention momentarily. “They’re both really cute.”

Indeed, Juliet’s eyelashes and eagerness to smile were infectious. It was easy to see why Romeo fell.

Clearly set before any type of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal environment, Juliet’s friends in particular seem to be bothered by R & J’s obvious attraction. Mercutio, played by a marvelously compelling Hale Appleman, is convincingly, deliciously creepy. He attempts to defuse the situation when Tybalt’s ire is raised at R&J’s impromptu makeout session. Likewise, Romeo’s pals Benvolio and the Friar seem good with the gay.

The film is strewn with thoughtful, well-placed touches when adapting Shakespeare for a modern setting. Fellow cadets are referred to as “kinsman,” and the room where R & J “marry” (read: unknown encounter, possibly sexual in nature) is the “Chemistry Lab.” The infamous “Livestrong” bracelet is referenced again, this time as the ring with which J summons R.

The storyline is helped along by a delicately wistful piano soundtrack by Nicholas Wright and several indie rock songs from Brooklyn-based Bishop Allen, including “The Magpie” and “Busted Heart.” The cinematography and incredibly strong song choices help give the feel of modern young men hanging out in barracks or wrestling with thoughts in the middle of the night. I’m a music snob, and the soundtrack was one place where “Private Romeo” nailed it.

Other things didn’t translate well at all, most notably keeping the female references in place. The cast almost seems to laugh at the ridiculousness of feminine personas when addressing the nurse. The same actors who played Benvolio (Charlie Barnett) and Mercutio are used again for Juliet’s parents, and it flat out doesn’t work. The section should have been cut entirely.

As Tybalt and Mercutio are “slain,” they just punch each other and have an ambulance respond. While probably more realistic in the given setting, for Shakespeare aficionados, their lack of demise is startling. SPOILER ALERT: Their fisticuffs serve as a foreshadowing for R & J’s outcome, though placing the “poison” for J’s coma into a canteen was a nice touch.

The story, though ending with R & J’s discovery as lovers and not their deaths, remains decidedly more positive in outcome than the Bard’s original. Less doom, more gloom.

I’m glad I stuck with the whole film, beyond being merely mandated to watch it for this article. The character development pulled me in. R & J’s chemistry was palpable. I’m a nitpicker, especially on the military elements, but you could take all of that away and the story would still remain. Beyond gender, time and place, Private Romeo is, at its heart, a story about Truth and Love. And what’s not to love about that?

Faith’s parting shot:

I wanted to stop watching because I simply did not care what happened. It took too long to reveal who the protagonist/antagonist were and how the well-known family feud was to play out in this ghost-town military academy with only a handful of actors present. I’m assuming he was following some sort of “show, don’t tell” that high-minded movies and books strive for, but the trick with that is you still have to show. The movie doesn’t even identify who the main characters were, let alone provide reasons to care about them. And the ranting scene in the stairwell was not overly spooky, just random. Up to that point, it was one of the longest deliveries in the movie, so we didn’t really know if that was normal for him or why it was significant, nor what he is ranting about since we know nothing of the characters, their struggles and conflicts.