“Shall I compare … compare … compare thee … to a mourner’s play?”
A young Will Shakespeare struggles to find the word -- any word -- to start his latest sonnet. Only after a whispered “summer’s day” comes from his best pal and more-popular-playwright-than-he, Kit Marlowe, does his inspiration begin to kick in (especially as Kit continues to prod with more choice words and lines).
Every writer certainly has a slump from time to time, but Will’s is bigger than Falstaff’s belly. He is fiercely searching for a new muse in his life, someone who can save him from yet another lame comedy about pirates and their dogs. That his inspiration will arrive as a young woman of wealth — one already betrothed to a Lord but one who is desperate to be on the stage that English law forbids her to be so — is just the kind of set-up any young playwright might die a thousand deaths to have. Certainly it worked well for Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard as the backbone for their 1998 Academy Award winning film Shakespeare in Love, and it is a tantalizing backdrop for the play by the same name. Adapted to the stage by Lee Hall, Shakespeare in Love is now playing in a must-see, exceedingly entertaining production at Marin Theatre Company.
Framed as a play within a play, Shakespeare in Love takes us back to the late sixteenth century as the playwright-in-the-making, still early in his career, is looking for an advance for his next play from one (or actually both) of London’s rival troupes. He is also in frantic search for a new idea of what is the world to write as a follow-up to his recent Two Gentleman of Verona. The Queen (as in Elizabeth) has requested a play with a dog in it; the theatre entrepreneur Henslowe has hired him to write a comedy entitled Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter; but Kit Marlowe keeps pumping him with ideas about a love story of the son and daughter of two rival, Italian families — a story that is destined to be as tragic as it is beautiful.
That story begins to play out in real life when Will meets Viola de Lesseps after sneaking into a party her father is giving in honor of her expected engagement to Lord Wessex — a union she has no interest in making. What Viola does want to do is to fall in love with the handsome playwright she on the sly kissed (and much more) at her engagement party. And she is determined to be in his upcoming play.
To do the latter, she dresses as a new actor in town named Thomas Kent and lands the lead role of someone called Romeo in Will’s play — one he writes as the two secret lovers live the developing script day by day (actually night by night) with new pages guiding both rehearsals and their making of love. All the while, even though Will keeps promising the impatient Henslowe that a happy ending (and maybe a pirate or two) is coming, everything in the emerging script and in his own life begins to point otherwise.
Adam Magill and Megan Trout could hardly be better than they are as Will and Viola. Mr. Magill has all the angst, impatience, and near-suicidal tendencies of a writer in trouble until he transforms into an energized and ebullient creator of iambic pentameter lines that seem to flow with full ease of guaranteed excellence. That metamorphosis is seen and heard in his whole demeanor as he embodies, after meeting his Juliet, the very Romeo he is creating word for word. In the beginning, he is an impetuous boy-barely-man who is willing to risk life and limb for just one forbidden kiss. That kiss stimulates the flow of all kinds of juices within him, one of which fortunately for the world is the ever-increasing ability to write beautiful verse without Marlowe’s prompting.
As Thomas the actor, Viola the aristocrat, and Viola the lover, Megan Trout reigns supreme. When dressed in hat and mustache as the disguised Thomas, she is a talented Romeo in rehearsal whose lines are delivered with a sensitivity and sensuality that her fellow actors fully admire (none but Will knowing that there is a reason this Thomas brings something unique they have never seen before among their colleagues on stage). As Viola the betrothed, Ms. Trout is reluctantly dutiful, courageously sneaky, and proudly resistant all at the same time (especially the last when repeatedly barked commands by her fiancé Lord Wessex, played with full aristocratic and chauvinistic snobbery and haughtiness by Thomas Gorrebeeck). But when Viola the lover, Megan Trout is a Juliet prototype who could inspire almost any would-be poet. Arm-in-arm with her Will with lips touching lips, the two create a script that causes all watching hearts to skip more than a beat or two.
Like in most of the Bard’s canon of plays, many of the minor, lower-class characters of Shakespeare in Love are memorably delicious and delightful. Similar to the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Viola’s nurse is often a show-stopper, well worth watching every moment she is on stage. As the nurse who supports and continually covers up on the sly Viola’s love affair with Will, Stacy Ross is particularly hilarious as she covers her ears and sings in off-key (and loudly) in order to hide from herself and the rest of the household the rather loud love-making coming from her mistress’s bed. Ms. Ross is also a bawdy tavern owner, Mistress Quickly, who gives a young Sam (Ben Euphrat) a chance to leave for a moment his normal role as lady on stage to be a man in bed. And as Queen Elizabeth, Ms. Ross reigns supreme, especially in the wry humor she so well delivers in both her voice and her royal countenance.
Robert Sicular is Henslowe, the impatient and worried owner of the Rose Theatre, whose overall jovial demeanor and friendship to Will betrays the persistent pushiness he tries to use to get Will to write in his pirates and ensure the tragedy-in-the-making has a happy ending.
An impish dwarf of a kid named John Webster, as deliciously and devilishly played by Sango Tajima (among four other roles), has a myriad of ways to don a face-filling frown; and while she plays the bad boy, it is tough in the end not to love her John. Kenny Toll plays with flair, heart, and fun two key chums of Will: his inspiration for needed words to woo Viola and fellow playwright, Christopher Marlowe, and a exceedingly handsome and seasoned actor named Ned Alleyn.
Winning the hearts of his fellow actors as well as we the audience is Liam Vincent as a stuttering, wanna-be thespian, Ralph, who becomes an unlikely star. L. Peter Callender is the bombastic and blustery Burbage, Henslowe’s rival theatre owner, and proves that the union among actors is even stronger than the drive to secure one’s own packed house. Lance Gardner and Brian Herndon each ably take on multiple roles, with the latter being the pompously pious Tilney who keeps trying to close the very theatres that his sovereign queen likes to attend.
And as he often does when on a local stage, Mark Anderson Phillips leaves a fantastically memorable impression as Fennyman, the money man behind Will’s production who goes from demanding bully to a sentimental producer with a big heart and a bigger desire to be on stage himself.
The intimate Marin Theatre is a perfect setting for Director Jasson Minadakis to give this production the kind scrappy, make-shift feel that provides authenticity to Shakespeare’s early, low/no budget beginnings. With many of the actors also picking up instruments to provide music along the way (under music direction by Jennifer Reason) and with they and others often watching scenes playing out around them (as if observing fellow thespians rehearsing), there is a real feeling of excitement, spontaneity, and community throughout the production. The warehouse look and feel of Kat Conley’s excellent scenic design where a rolling ladder becomes a balcony or a staircase and trunks and boxes in the background serve as seats and leaning posts enhances the director’s and the playwright’s vision for the play’s raw energy.
Katherine Nowacki’s costumes establish the rag-tag nature of many of the characters while also letting us see the aristocrats and queen in all the finery and exaggerated collars that we also see in textbooks and museum paintings (not to mention PBS series). The lighting of Kurt Landisman is a particular star in this production as he creates light that seems to seep in from unseen cracks and to have the glow of candles and torches. Sword fight scenes are wonderfully planned and choreographed for both laughs and thrills by Fight Director Dave Maier and Choreographer Liz Tenuto.
Lee Hall’s adaptation of the Norman/Stoppard screenplay emphasizes even more than the original flm the determination of one woman to forge a place on the world’s stage — or at least on London’s — for talented actors of her sex. While we as audience are moved by the doomed love story of Romeo and Juliet, we cannot help but be thrilled by the stand this fictional feminist of sorts takes in the stead of all the women who did dare to make their historic ways onto the forbidden stage. Brava and bravo to Viola and to Lee Hall as well as to Marin Theatre for this engaging, enthralling, and educating Shakespeare in Love.
— Eddie Reynolds, Theatre Eddys Read full review