Virginia Rep’s ‘Shakespeare in Love’ re-creates the fun of celebrated film
Virginia Rep’s season opens with panache as Lee Hall’s version of “Shakespeare in Love” blazes across the stage. This is the 2014 adaptation of the 1998 film that won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.
All the rollicking elements of the popular movie are here — a lusty young couple, a playwright with writer’s block, a forced marriage, and the pleasure of finding imagined nuggets of inspiration for a couple of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. It’s a lot to cram into a couple of hours, but director/choreographer Jen Wineman does a creditable job of leading us through it.
Young Will Shakespeare owes a play to Henslowe, a theater owner, but he can hardly finish a sentence. The successful playwright Christopher Marlowe coaches him, but Shakespeare promises the play to a second theater owner, Richard Burbage, getting himself into more trouble when Henslowe goes ahead and starts casting the show.
Enter Viola de Lesseps, the stage-struck daughter of a wealthy merchant. Women aren’t allowed onstage in Elizabethan society, so she disguises herself as a young man, Thomas Kent, seeking the lead role in Shakespeare’s largely unwritten comedy “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.”
Will has seen Viola before, as she’s his devoted fan; he sneaks into a party at her home, and the two quickly fall for each other, enacting a suspiciously familiar (to us) balcony scene.
But Viola’s father consents to marry her off to odious Lord Wessex, an impoverished nobleman who plans to take her (and her dowry) off to his tobacco plantation in Virginia. Queen Elizabeth must approve the marriage, so they have an audience with the imposing monarch. Meanwhile, rehearsals for “Romeo” progress, as does the young lovers’ passion. Subplots include threats to Marlowe and the Lord Chamberlain’s decision to shut down the theater when it’s discovered that a woman is onstage.
No happy endings here, except the pleasure of seeing “Romeo and Juliet” come together out of the ruins of the romance, along with inklings of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” to come.
But the production itself is impressive, starting with Ron Keller’s stunning Tudor set, which rotates to provide many locations — a theater, a tavern, the de Lesseps home.
In one breathtaking scene, Wineman moves the action impressively around and through the set as it spins. Aaron Mastin’s gorgeous costumes — especially Queen Elizabeth’s gown — and BJ Wilkinson’s flawless lighting contribute much to the lush re-creation of the period. And there is beautiful incidental music under Sandy Dacus’ expert direction, with wonderful vocals from the multitalented cast.
The performances are excellent, led by Betsy Struxness’ lovely Viola, including her earnest turn as Thomas Kent.
As Shakespeare, Brandon
Carter gives us intelligence and desperation, fervor and ambition. Susan Sanford is sly and regal as Elizabeth, and Scott Wichmann gets a dashing turn as Ned Alleyn, a famous actor.
The large cast includes many standouts, particularly J. Ron Fleming as financier Hugh Fennyman, Joseph Bromfield as the foppish Wessex, Matthew Radford Davies as the preening Burbage and Shravan Amin as big-hearted Marlowe.
There are problems with the first few scenes of the play — a lot of exposition handled none too gracefully by the adapter or the director, with many characters introduced and little explanation as to, for example, why Fennyman is having Henslowe’s feet literally held to the fire. It’s perhaps less effective to have Wessex played as a disagreeable dandy than as a threatening presence; and the pacing propels us past a revelation of Shakespeare’s faithlessness without giving Viola enough time to show the depth of that wounding.
But the fun, the ardor and, above all, the cleverness are here, making for a beautiful realization of a beloved story.