Before he was Shakespeare with a capital “S,” he was just plain Will (Nicholas Carriere), an ordinary guy—a fledgling playwright, somewhat disheveled, a bit of a skirt-chaser, and frantic for a play that will rival the mellifluous prose of his friend and rival Kit Marlowe (Avery Glymph).
The stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love is rather like an ideal boyfriend—sweet, funny and romantic. Former Round House Theatre artistic director Blake Robison directs this bardic confection for Baltimore Center Stage with lightness and evident affection for the silly things you do and say when you’re in love, whether it be a person or the theater itself.
The play is based on the 1998 movie, which featured a screenplay by brainy Brit playwright Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, and presented a young Gwyneth Paltrow for audiences to fall in love with, as well as Dame Judi Dench playing Queen Elizabeth I, if you please.
Although some of the dialogue is a bit more treacly than you may remember it, Shakespeare in Love delights with its passion, puns and Shakespearean allusions that even casual devotees of his sonnets and plays will relish.
On a side note, it was sobering to see that not many audience members snickered at the in-joke presence of John Webster (the angelically demonic Clark Furlong), depicted here as a nasty piece of work, a child actor whose appetite for gore portends his career as a leading playwright of Jacobean tragedies, the next big thing after Shakespeare hangs up his ruff. Guess not everyone’s guilty pleasure is Jacobean tragedy, like this critic.
As the play begins, Shakespeare toils among Tim Mackabee’s magnificent three-tier Elizabethan set, which resembles the Globe but is called the Rose in this case. As portrayed by Nicholas Carriere, Will’s a hunk, catnip to the ladies as argentine verse tumbles from his lips.
Well, usually. Will’s come down with a wicked case of writer’s block, as evidenced by his struggles with the sonnet “Shall I compare thee to…” Aw, nuts. He wrestles with “a mummer’s play” and other options before getting bailed out by Marlowe (the strikingly grave and thoughtful Glymph), an allusion to Marlowe perhaps being the source of some of Shakespeare’s genius.
Shakespeare’s in debt and owes plays to many producers and actors—and so far he only has a title, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.
Enter the Muse—highborn Viola de Lesseps (Emily Trask, beautiful in form and speech), a fan of Shakespeare’s poetry who decides to have some fun before her arranged, mercantile marriage to Wessex (Michael Brusasco, deliciously pompous), a tedious man only wanting her money for his tobacco plantations in Virginia.
Shakespeare in Love
closes November 26, 2017
Details and tickets
She disguises herself as a young male actor—only men were allowed onstage at the time and pretty boys usually played the female roles—and wriggles her way into Shakespeare’s Romeo and Ethel and into his heart.
Viola’s inspired readings of his verse inspires Shakespeare to turn a comedy with an appearance by a dog (at Queen Elizabeth’s request, played by a fantastically powdered and bejeweled Naomi Jacobsen with acerbic decorum, peppered with womanly wit) into Romeo and Juliet, one of the world’s greatest tragedies. At first, he still relies on Marlowe, as seen in a balcony scene where he woos Viola with Marlowe’s whispered divine couplets that doesn’t make you think about R&J, but a pale echo of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Some of where Shakespeare in Love falls into sticky territory is in the ersatz Shakespearean dialogue. Carriere and Trask’s ardent recitation of scenes from Romeo and Juliet are so fine tears spring to your eyes. And when Viola departs for the New World, turning to tell Shakespeare to “write me well,” you think he must be the luckiest writer on earth to have such an eloquent, indelible Muse.
But that is often not the case when they and the rest of the on-point cast aren’t borrowing from the Bard. There are groaners galore, which are lifted straight from the screenplay but didn’t seem as obvious and Hollywood-y on screen.
The danger of the production falling into twee territory is averted by sharp performances by the ensemble, beginning with Barzin Akhavan as the debt-ridden but stars-in-his-eyes theater owner Henslowe (who gets the show’s best line: When asked how the whole theater mess is going to get sorted out, he replies wistfully “It’s a mystery.”).
David Whalen makes a whopping good Great Shakespearean Actor (before there even was such a thing) in the role of Ned Alleyn; his thespian foil being rival actor Burbage, the big-headed gasbag played with flourish by Brent Harris.
Laura Gordon brings quiet wisdom and a hint of inner feistiness to the role of the Nurse, while Jefferson A. Russell shows deft physical comedy agility as a burly actor giving his all to female roles. Spot, the stage dog, is bow-wow-wowingly played by Meatball, a chihuahua in a white neck ruff and velvet doublet.
The diverse cast (Meatball included) is further enriched by Kathleen Geldard’s costumes that contain wit and period detail in every stitch. Her jewel-encrusted gowns for Queen Elizabeth and comely silk frocks for Lady Viola capture their personalities and stations in life, as well as their restraints in regard to gender.
As with love, you need to approach Shakespeare in Love with a fresh heart and mind.
Shakespeare in Love Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard . Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall . Director: Blake Robison. Featuring: Nicholas Carriere, Avery Glymph, John Plumpis, David Whalen, Michael Fajardo, Barzin Akhavan, Brent Harris, Liz Daingerfield, Meatball, Marquis D. Gibson, Wynn Harmon, Naomi Jacobsen, Bari Robinson, Taha Mandviwala, Emily Trask, Laura Gordon, Jefferson A. Russell, Jamal James, Clark Furlong, Michael Brusasco, Richard Buchanan. Scenic Designer: Kathleen Geldard. Lighting Designer: Michelle Habeck. Sound Designer: Matthew M. Nielson. Choreographer: Diane Lala. Fight Directors: Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Casting Director: Stephanie Klapper. Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda. Assistant Stage Manager: Erin McCoy. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.