"Shakespeare's R & J" at Signature Theatre is an extremely clever analysis of love. Seen through the lens of the emotions of four young men who attend a strict parochial school, Joe Calarco's play creates a "Romeo and Juliet" in which all the roles are played by the four students.

Directed with a sure hand by Calarco, the result is an affecting, muscular production. Calarco is not aiming simply to set the original in different surroundings; he is more interested in how the new surroundings affect the play.

The four students, played by Alex Mills, Jefferson Farber, Joel David Santner and Rex Daugherty, are at first seen doing everything in unison: going to math class together, reciting "amo, amas, amat" together, praying and going to Holy Communion together.

Everything seems to bind them into a group, including their clothes. They wear identical dark blazers, gray trousers and white shirts (costumes by Kathleen Geldard). They walk in military lock-step to the sound of a drum, their eyes straight ahead, their only recreation wrestling and energetic horsing around.

'Shakespeare's R & J'
Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington
When: Through March 3
Info: Tickets start at $40; 703-820-9771; signature-theatre.org

Yet when one of the boys finds a copy of the forbidden "Romeo and Juliet" and they read it aloud one night, their world begins to change as literature turns into reality. Just as the words on the page reveal fault lines in the city of Verona, the reading creates tensions among the four.

Student 1 (Mills), who is of a poetic cast and writes flowery letters to his girlfriend, assumes the role of Romeo as they read. At the ball at the Capulets' home, Student 2 (Farber) assumes the role of Juliet. When he and Student 1 meet and dance at the ball, they fall deeply in love.

Throughout the play, one sustaining force is Shakespeare's language, whose sonnets are inserted when a jealous student rips up a page of "Romeo and Juliet."

But the main sustaining force in this production is Mills, whose dedication to and adoration of Juliet is so strong, it overtakes his whole persona. Although all four men work together smoothly as an ensemble, at the end of the play, it is Student 1 who refuses to fall back into the goose-step life with the other students. Mills makes that refusal credible.

Calarco's vision of "Romeo and Juliet" is that it happens in a dangerous and anti-innocent world, and this "Shakespeare's R & J" succeeds in creating the kind of irreverent, unromantic love that belongs in that world.