Romeo & Juliet opens at the Guthrie

The classic tale of star-crossed lovers opened last night at the Guthrie Theater. Shakespeare is ever himself the same, but the staging and acting offers some new--if sometimes incongruent--twists.

The play begins with the full cast on stage before the gorgeous facade of a golden-bricked Italian home, holding umbrellas above their heads as they shout those familiar opening lines: "Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene..." Instead of Shakespearean garb, the characters wear the costumes of Victorian gents and ladies. Romeo and friends are dapper dandies.

The staging is creative, but personally, I found it distracting--it's hard to take Verona's young men seriously when they're sparring with canes for swords. 

The production is a collaboration between the Guthrie and The Acting Company. The New York-based touring company features young actors in the classics, and frankly, some of the stars of this production feel young.

Elizabeth Stahlmann and William Sturdivant--two graduates of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie B.F.A. program--play the nurse and Romeo's friend Mercutio. On the one hand, they are the most dynamic actors on the stage. But somehow, something feels a bit forced.

In the first half of the play, Stahlmann, just 23, brings a musical comedy styling to the matronly role of the nurse that takes some getting used to. With characters dying off left and right in the second half, Stahlmann tones it down. She's got range as an actress, but the dramatic shift makes her portrayal a bit uneven. Similarly, Sturdivant's Mercutio is bold and flamboyant, but the characters that surround him are so mild that he overpowers them and the chemistry feels off.

The title characters play their role with an intensity appropriate of youthful love. Sonny Valicenti is consistent--a lovesick lover who does not come off as particularly deep, but thus the character is written. Laura Esposito's Juliet surpasses Valicenti's performance; her transformation from a childlike 14-year-old when we first meet her to a determined woman by the play's end is full of the contradictions of that age.

A bright spot is Raymond Chapman's portrayal of Friar Laurence, which evens out the emotional energy of the production.

Shakespeare is always excellent; this performance has some bumps. The production runs through the end of the month. Tickets are $15 to $40.