Vir­ginia Rep’s ‘Shake­speare in Love’ re-cre­ates the fun of cel­e­brated film

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - Metro - BY SU­SAN HAUBENSTOCK Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent

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.

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