Universal Appeal

A name familiar to Tucson theater veterans returns with her production of 'Romeo and Juliet'

Show of hands: How many of you have seen a production of Shakespeare's classic Romeo and Juliet? I thought so. That's a lot of hands.

Another question: How many of you would like to see the play again, especially if the product were the joint effort of two of the most respected entities in American theater—the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and The Acting Company of New York?

Of course you would. And thanks to the Arizona Theatre Company, the opportunity is yours: ATC is sponsoring a five-performance residency of Romeo and Juliet Nov. 11-14.

Shakespeare's eloquent story of youthful passion, feuding families and the heavy hand of fate attracts theater producers again and again because of its lively theatricality and the story's universal appeal. And it never fails to find an audience, because the tale resonates with all ages; after all, we can never escape the forces of love and fate.

We also return to the story, because, according to director Penny Metropulos, "We think we know it, but when we really give ourselves over to it, we say, 'Wait. I never noticed that before.' The story and the beauty of Shakespeare's poetry are always revealing something new. It challenges our expectations. It surprises us."

Longtime Tucson theater enthusiasts probably recognize the name Penny Metropulos. ATC brought her in to do a production of Vanities during their 1976-1977 season. It was so popular that it was resurrected in the summer of 1977 for an extended run in a cabaret setting at the Doubletree. She stayed with ATC until 1982, doing numerous roles and establishing an extensive training and outreach program called Encompass. The program offered classes for children, teens and adults taught by members of ATC's acting company and other theater professionals in town. In fact, so extensive was her profile in the community that "Metropulos" was almost synonymous with "ATC."

"That was such an important time for ATC," she says. The theater had already evolved from a community theater into a professional one with a contract with the Actors' Equity Association; now it was poised to embark on the daunting task of securing the support it needed to not only take its entire season to Phoenix, but develop a national presence and reputation as well.

"I enjoyed my time in Tucson so much," says Metropulos. "It was great to have the opportunity to be a member of the company and contribute to the growth of the theater. I took away so much—the opportunity to work with fine artists; (founding artistic director) Sandy Rosenthal's passion for art and belief in the power of artists to change the world; and (managing director) David Hawkanson's unswerving commitment."

After leaving Tucson, Metropulos became a member of the acting company at the acclaimed Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. When Libby Appel became artistic director in 1995, she asked Metropulos to be associate artistic director. Metropulos served in this capacity for 12 years, and by this time was identified as a director. She has not acted since.

"I have not missed it for a minute," she says. "Directing is completely fulfilling. I love collaborating with actors and all the designers and, indeed, the playwright—living or dead."

She has directed at numerous theaters across the country, and she directed Candida, a co-production of ATC and the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, in 1995. Besides her work with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she also has worked with Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Shakespeare festivals in California and Alabama.

"I've never met a Shakespeare (play) I didn't like," she says. "I am always humbled when I direct his plays. I'm in awe of his knowledge of human nature. We reach across centuries of human behavior when we are engaged with his material. And the beauty of his poetry speaks on a visceral level—like music. It always amazes me how accessible his work is."

And how is working with The Acting Company?

"This is a very unique and important group. First, they are committed to taking shows where often there is very little theater. Then, they are involved in developing the talent of young theater professionals, nurturing them in the beginning years of their careers. They get to work with great material (and) professional designers, and they play everywhere, from tiny towns to places with quite sophisticated audiences. At the end of the tour, they have become very seasoned. This is a terrific idea; I really believe in it."

The Acting Company was co-founded by Kevin Kline and current producing director Margot Harley in 1972 with members of the first graduating class of Juilliard's Drama Division. Current members include several actors from two of the Guthrie's actor-training programs: A Guthrie Experience for Actors in Training, and the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater B.F.A. Actor Training Program.

As one might imagine, Romeo and Juliet is a prime opportunity to introduce students to Shakespeare. Samantha Wyer, ATC's associate artistic director and director of education, says that besides the regular performances, the group will be doing three special student matinees in both Phoenix and Tucson. (Educators should contact ATC for details.)

In addition, says Wyer, University of Arizona English Professor Peter Medine, in conjunction with ATC, will host a two-hour event, "Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: A Presentation."

"I think you might find something new and fresh with this Romeo and Juliet," says Metropulos. "And who knows? You might be a part of discovering the next generation's greatest performers."

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