THEATER | The Acting Company’s “Romeo and Juliet”: Buck up, man!


In the comic strip Peanuts, Linus is a complex character. He’s a sensitive, intellectual type, wont to read Dostoyevsky and quote the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. He has his occasional embarrassments—for example, when the Great Pumpkin fails to arrive as promised—but he’s not a pathetic soul like Charlie Brown. He’s good at baseball, and when anyone makes fun of him for carrying a security blanket around, he snaps it at them threateningly. Understanding Linus, I think, might help one to understand how the Acting Company’s current production of Romeo and Juliet is misjudged.

It all comes down to Romeo. As portrayed by Sonny Valicenti in this production, directed by Penny Metropulos and created in association with the Guthrie, Romeo is a real nerd—which is cool by me. The production is set in the early 20th century, the sunset of the Romantic era, and this is a Romantic Romeo indeed: a slight, dark, melodramatic young man whom one imagines would prefer Keats to Shakespeare if given the choice. His initial infatuation with the unseen Rosaline looms much larger in this production than in most, if only because Valicenti is so deliriously moony over Rosaline in his first scenes. When he does a 180 and plants his “by the book” kiss on Juliet within minutes of meeting her, it seems much more like shallow caprice than like true love.

Still, I was rooting for them. Laura Esposito’s Juliet is just as vacantly precocious as her paramour, and together the two of them reminded me of a twitterpated young real-life couple I once knew who were always staring at each other—or, rather, staring through each other into the cosmos. As with the Acting Company’s production of Henry V, the company milks Shakespeare’s humor in a pleasingly natural fashion, making only minimal recourse to phallic props for cheap laughs. (I’m sure Elizabethan actors just as often as contemporary actors thrust long, stiff things from their crotches, but I don’t care—it was probably a sign of creative desperation then, too.) Through most of the first act, the production feels sweet and warm…but also rather light. The cheerful musical cues that accompany scene transitions, coupled with the show’s gentle tone, start to make it feel a little like you’re watching a version of Family Ties where Steve and Elyse have a blood feud with Skippy’s parents.

romeo and juliet, presented through january 31 at the guthrie theater. for tickets ($15-$40) and information, see

When the bodies start dropping, things get rocky. Much of the production turns the corner to tragedy adequately well, as Victor Zupanc’s music veers in the direction of Lifetime Original: notably, Chris Thorn finds a compellingly grotesque anger in Lord Capulet, throwing his daughter to the floor and insisting that she accept the marital match he’s found for her in Paris (an appropriately meek Jamie Smithson). Esposito, for her part, remains resolute: stubborn and sincere to the end. Here is where Valicenti’s Romeo needs to pull a Linus and rise to the occasion.

Instead, he crumples, becoming almost comically bereft. Forgive me for trafficking in hoary gender stereotypes, but there’s no other way to say it: he cries like a girl. Metropulos ought to light a fire under Valicenti, and I don’t know what she was thinking when she signed off on the actor’s handling of Romeo’s final moments, but I’ve heard that the death scene has unintentionally inspired laughter at other performances, and if I hadn’t bit my tongue there might have been some on Sunday afternoon as well.

Like Henry V, this production of Romeo and Juliet is subsidized by you, me, Don Rickles, and every other American taxpayer through an NEA-sponsored initiative called Shakespeare for a New Generation. On Sunday there were many teenagers in the audience, and the Acting Company’s commendably human productions are as likely as any to connect with young audiences. (We were twice informed that texting during the production was not allowed, a warning that wasn’t deemed necessary at When We Are Married.) Socially unacceptable love affairs, unfeeling parents, and—especially in some neighborhoods—absurd turf wars are things teenagers are routinely tormented by today, and creating a Romeo and Juliet where young and old alike are blindly impetuous could, theoretically, resonate extremely well with a New Generation. By the end of this production, though, I expect the teens were ready to opt out of the show with the summary judgment offered as an option to users canceling their MySpace accounts: too much drama.