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Theater review: Hello, Romeo, this is Juliet calling

This is not your English class Shakespeare lesson. Original and bold, “R+J: A Telephone Play” reinvents the last scene of “Romeo and Juliet” six different ways.

For the experimental group ERA (Equally Represented Arts) Theatre, an ebullient ensemble goes all in, creating a lively freeform evening of theater. Rachel Tibbetts, Mitch Eagles, Will Bonfiglio, Cara Barresi, Mollie Amburgey and Carl Overly Jr. competently thread the meaning of Act V, Scene III of Shakespeare’s tragedy on young star-crossed lovers through very unusual points of view.

Think Quentin Tarantino meets Eugene Ionesco for this mash-up. The vibe is offbeat. Keeping the audience off-guard is intentional.

Director Lucy Cushion, also the scenic and sound designer, uses innovative, deliberate staging in the cozy space of The Chapel to add more texture to these new short one-act plays. Lighting design by Erik Kuhn and music by Charlie Mueller also enhance the production, and costume designer Meredith LaBounty has created feminine and fun outfits for the girls.

As presented, the play’s format is closer to musical chairs than the childhood game “Telephone,” although Alexander Graham Bell’s invention is used prominently throughout. The “Telephone” connection is actually part of the creation of the plays. Six playwrights were on board to write a contemporary and fresh interpretation of the final scene of “Romeo and Juliet.” But their starting point had to be the most recent creation in the chain, thus building on each other’s work.

The end result was: “Rosaline Called” by Camila Le-bert; “Still Standing” by Otso Huopaniemi; “The Offended Audience” by Zhu Yi; “Number 4” by John Douglas Weidner; “Untitled” by Samara Weiss; and “Two Character Play” by James Ryan Caldwell.

Overall, it’s a mixed bag, with some more successful than others. The words work best when they capture the heady, hormonal impact of teenage first love. They don’t when it’s a strident shouting match in unison. When the playwright emotionally connects through the actors, not trying to be too precious or cutesy, or use the ubiquitous hipster edge, that is when it comes together.

ERA Theatre is sincere in its efforts to present thought-provoking, unique works. It doesn’t need gimmicks or a bag of tricks. They have assembled strong enough artists, confident in what they’re doing, to succeed in whatever risky project they want to share. “R+J: A Telephone Play” has enough panache to tantalize the audience, even if its shiny new appeal can’t entirely be sustained.

The program runs 90 minutes without an intermission, and afterward, an improvisation troupe, the Bodysnatchers, presents its version of a Shakespeare play that the remaining audience members select.

If you are intrigued by pure imagination, this is a piece worth experiencing.

At a glance

What: “R+J: A Telephone Play, or Don't Drink the Milk”

Who: ERA Theatre

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive, St. Louis

Tickets: 518-316-0517 or www.eratheatre.org

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