Last year’s collaboration between the Guthrie Theater’s BFA graduates and The Acting Company yielded a spirited version of Henry V that toured the country and received a great deal of critical acclaim. The two companies are trying to recreate that magic this year with Romeo and Juliet , which will also hit the road after its run here on the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium stage.
Romeo and Juliet would seem to be a perfect choice for this collection of young, talented actors. At its core, after all, the play is about the impetuousness of youth, the power of young love to cloud all reason, and the propensity for teenagers to do stupid things when their passions are inflamed. Juliet is only fourteen in the play, and even her mother is under thirty. Most of the other characters are in their teens as well, including Romeo and his buddies, Mercutio and Benvolio.
Recent productions of Shakespeare at the Guthrie (most notably last year’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream ) have bent over backwards to include pop-culture references and other gimmicks to grab the attention of young people and make Shakespeare seem relevant. Romeo and Juliet does precisely the opposite: In this production, the young men wear three-piece suits and tweed caps, and carry flashy walking sticks, as if arthritis has already caught up with them. The play is set in an unspecific time period that looks like the 1920s, and certainly isn’t Verona, Italy. Many of the characters look like they could have stepped out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and act with a foppish pretension that makes them seem much older than they really are—an odd choice given the many ways in which the play tries to tap into the spirit of youth: i.e., through drunken buffoonery, plenty of sexual innuendo, a certain amount of conspicuous irreverence and, of course, the ridiculous swiftness with which Romeo and Juliet fall in love and proceed forthwith to destroy themselves.
Though Romeo and Juliet is classified as a tragedy, one of this production’s goals seems to be to squeeze as much comedy as possible out of it. In fact, William Sturdevant and Elizabeth Stahlmann are so good and so funny in their roles (as Mercutio and the Nurse, respectively) that they pretty much steal the show. Sturdevant doesn’t just over-act his Mercutio, he kicks into a weird sort of acting hyper-drive where he’s channeling Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock all at once. His energy and humor drive the first half of the play, so much so that when he dies at the end of the first act, it is truly sad, because you’re left wondering who is going to provide the second act’s entertainment. Likewise, Stahlmann’s gossipy, wise-cracking nurse is the queen of every scene she’s in, and sometimes she’s so good that it looks like everyone else onstage with her is just taking up space.
This peculiar weighting of acting ability and effectiveness leaves Romeo (Sonny Valicenti) and Juliet (Laura Esposito) in a bit of a bind. Valicenti tries gamely to sell Romeo’s insta-passionate love for Juliet and subsequent heartbreak, and Esposito makes a valiant effort to act like a love-struck teenager, but neither can quite compete with their peers. The result is a lot of genuine over-acting and not a few unintentionally humorous moments—ones in which the agony and histrionics are a bit too much to take seriously.
Clearly, this is a production that's trying to use comedy to heighten the impact of the coming tragedy, and the tactic sometimes works. For instance, all those walking sticks look a bit ridiculous when the boy-men are using them to enact mock swordfights while goofing around. And for a while it seems as if, when the action does come to blows, they’re just going to bludgeon each other. But when the sticks turn out to conceal real swords, the switch turns harmless fun into instant danger, and the contrast is striking. Just once, however, it would be nice to see one of Shakespeare’s sexual innuendos delivered without a vigorous thrust of the hips and the obligatory grunt of licentious glee. But hey, they’re just boys, so what can you expect?
Well, you can expect a little more out of this Romeo and Juliet , but you’re probably not going to get it. All in all, it’s a modestly engaging effort played out on a single, rather drab set dominated by wrought-iron stairs and a wall of brick. None of the money scenes—the scenes you know and expect—work very well, but then again many of the secondary scenes—the scenes where you don’t expect much—are surprisingly good. Like most teenagers, it’s a play that hasn’t quite figured out what it wants to be, or how to make use of its many talents.
Romeo and Juliet continues at the Guthrie Theater through January 31.