Joe Calarco has a long relationship with "Shakespeare's R & J." The play he adapted and directed ran for a year Off-Broadway, the longest running version of "Romeo and Juliet" in New York history, earned him a Lucille Lortel Award. Subsequent productions in Chicago, Washington, London and Tokyo brought further honors, including Helen Hayes Award nominations for best play and best director.

Now, an artistic associate at Signature Theatre, Calarco returns to Washington to direct the North American premiere of his latest revision. "Shakespeare's R & J" is running at the MAX Theatre as the company's first in-the-round endeavor.

"The story of Romeo and Juliet has been popular for many years because it is the most passionate, visceral play Shakespeare wrote," Calarco said. "My adaptation makes the story palpable to a contemporary audience. It begins with a forbidden text four boys discover in their Catholic boarding school. One student is spurred on to learn more, and the others follow him. The familiar story quickly becomes a very new play of boys discovering what it means to be a man and have freedom.

"Today, so many young people are struggling with their identity that I thought it was important to take these boys out of their regimented world. After we began rehearsals here, I changed the end of the story because I found it rather desolate. It seemed irresponsible to leave them there, so when one boy leaves, even though he could go back, I spurred him on to a place of hope. He learns that when men and boys play women's roles, the women are strong and can do whatever they want."

'Shakespeare's R & J'
» Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington
» When: Through March 3
» Info: $30 to $70; 703-820-9771;

Calarco has been tweaking the script from the beginning. When the play ran at the Folger Theatre in 2000, he eliminated the world of school in the second act. The version that ran on London's West End in 2003 marked a major revision. Regardless of subtle changes, each version conveys two stories: the story of Romeo and Juliet and the story that shows how the play transforms four modern boys.

Calarco began his theater life as an actor but soon gravitated to the positions he now plies, playwright and director. His successes are many. At Signature alone, he has been honored for directing "Assassins," "Nijinsky's Last Dance," "Side Show," "Elegies" and "Urinetown." Two of his own plays, "Walter Cronkite is Dead" and " ... in the absence of spring ... ," have premiered at Signature. His credits elsewhere include the musical "Sarah, Plain and Tall," "The Glass Menagerie," "M. Butterfly," "Picnic," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Light in the Piazza" and dozens more.

"When you take on the emotional landscape of a play, it affects you," he said. "In 'Shakespeare's R & J,' the boys are struggling, but there is a light at the end. There is also humor and a lot of joy. The benefits of performing this play in-the-round is seeing the audience across from you, almost as if they are eavesdropping on the boys doing something forbidden. The actors go through the same process as the audience. This story is more dangerous and sexier than the original. Nevertheless, both audience and actors see how it makes sense."