Theater Review: “Shakespeare in Love” — Lightweight Bard

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Shakespeare in Love comes off as lovely, temperate, and at least a little trite.

Shakespeare in Love, based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall. Directed by Scott Edmiston. Original music, music direction and sound design by David Reiffell. Choreography and period movement by Judith Chaffee. Fight direction by Ted Hewlett. Scenic design by Jenna McFarland lord. Costume design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt. Lighting design by Karen Perlow. Props design by Abby Shenker. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston, MA, through February 10.

George Olesky and Jennifer Ellis in SpeakEasy Stage's production of "Shakespeare in Love." Photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

George Olesky and Jennifer Ellis in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of “Shakespeare in Love.” Photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

By David Greenham

Twenty years ago this week, Miramax released Shakespeare in Love. Festooned with glittery stars, the film went on to win seven Oscars, garnering acting awards for Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench, along with Best Picture and Best Screenplay. It is a lightweight, enjoyable romp that revolves around the creation of the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet, which we’re led to believe was originally named Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter.

A few years ago Disney, the owner of the rights to the film, commissioned Lee Hall to adapt Shakespeare in Love for the stage. Hall wrote the screenplay for Billy Elliot and has translated plays by Carlo Goldoni, Bertolt Brecht, and Herman Heijermans. He co-wrote screenplays for adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. His version of Shakespeare in Love opened on London’s West End and eventually crossed the Atlantic to Canada’s Stratford Festival as well as several other theaters (although never making it to Broadway).

The drama kicks off with a baffled young Will Shakespeare (George Olesky), who is struggling with coming up with the first words for Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare there to a sum…sum…something….” The ensemble is huddled around him, agonizing with him over every syllable. At last, his cynical rival Kit Marlowe (Eddie Shields) speaks up: “A sonnet? I thought you were writing a play.” The ensemble quickly scatters and we learn that Shakespeare has promised scripts to the owner of the Rose Theater, Phillip Henslowe (Ken Balton), and to actor Richard Burbage (Omar Robinson). Alas, Shakespeare has been forsaken by his muse. At this point, he can’t even pen a sonnet, let alone a play. Before he exits, Marlowe sardonically suggests a line for the poem: “A summer’s day. Start with something lovely, temperate, and thoroughly trite.”

Lovely, temperate, and at least a little trite would be an apt description of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Shakespeare in Love. The blame for the superficiality doesn’t rest with veteran director Scott Edmiston, his creative collaborators, or the gathering of some of Boston’s most reliable actors. The fact is, the screenplay (by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard) wasn’t ever that artful; the fact that the film beat out Saving Private Ryan for that year’s Best Picture Oscar is more amusing then many of the gags in the show. When Shakespeare in Love premiered in the West End, NYTimes critic Ben Brantley famously labeled it “Shakespeare for sophomores.” If you want servings of unalloyed Shakespearean genius, stick with the pros at Commonwealth Shakespeare Company or Actors’ Shakespeare Project. Shakespeare in Love is essentially a romp filled with sight gags and silliness; there’s even less depth here than in the film.

At the core of Shakespeare in Love sits the Bard, the “Upstart Crow.” The character is part dreamer and part conman, and Olesky brings boundless energy to the writer’s scheming — to the point that it sometimes feels as if the actor is working too hard. Jennifer Ellis is his muse, Viola de Lesseps. She is the brightest light in the production, embodying the wonder, unbridled love, and spirit of a wannabe actor. She’s also an admired musical theater performer, and she makes good use of her beautiful voice when singing David Reiffel’s original music.

Ironically, even though there are strong actors in almost all the supporting roles, the production is somewhat unhinged in terms of its dramatic balance, its focus a bit wandering. Most theater historians agree that Kit Marlowe was the genuine “bad boy” among the Elizabethan writers. A warrant for his arrest was issued a little over a week before he died in a (purported) barroom brawl. (Editor’s Riposte: In 1598 dramatic Ben Jonson was indicted for manslaughter after a duel. He was also jailed twice for his writing and viewed with some suspicion for his conversion to Catholicism. He was very much a badass.) But Eddie Shields’ Kit slithers his way around the stage with far too much preening command, stealing scenes as he does. Cameron Beaty Gosselin’s turn as dramatist John Webster also feels unmodulated, particularly during the play-within-a-play, what with the character jumping up to play Ethel at every opportunity. The scenes featuring the ensemble work well, but there are times when the stage business for individual figures stretches the story in strange ways, to the point that the main narrative becomes hard to follow.

Of course, there are plenty of  delightful moments. Remo Araldi’s Fennyman and Apothecary is amusing, to the point where I was really looking forward to the Apothecary’s scene in Romeo and Juliet, which is in the film. Alas, the scene didn’t make the cut in Lee’s whittled-down theater version. Edward Rubenacker brought a welcome earnestness to Sam, the man cast as Juliet in the “production.” Omar Robinson made for a smooth and velvet-voiced Richard Burbage, who turns out to be the unsung hero of the tale.

I am a fan of Nancy E. Carroll, and once again she provides solid support. While most audience members will probably favor her stoic Queen Elizabeth (who probably has the best lines in the play), but I couldn’t get enough of her outrageous Madam Moll.

Jenna McFarland Lord’s massive replica of half of Henslow’s Curtain Theatre dominates the set. It is mighty attractive, and made predicable use of. Thankfully, there are pleasant surprises: a raucous bedroom scene  as well as a mesmerizing moment in which figures float on the Thames. More spaces outside of the theater would have been refreshing in this staging.

Rachel Padula-Shuflet’s costume design is confusing. Her clothes were colorful, bold, and Elizabethan-esque except when they are decidedly modern (Hollywood-zed?). There’s a concept here, but I couldn’t see much consistency. The same half-heartedness seemed to afflict Reiffel’s original score, music direction, and sound design. Whenever the live musicians played or sang it was lovely, but their performances sometimes felt like they were afterthoughts. The vocal balance of the ensemble was off at times. For example, Carolyn Saxon, who gives us a joyous Nurse, has a powerful voice. But the strength of that voice hasn’t always been blended in with the others in the ensemble — a battle of sound ensued. I suspect that this awkwardness, along with some of the clunky fight choreography, created by Ted Hewlett, will be sorted out during the run.

The script of Shakespeare in Love is rough around the edges, but SpeakEasy Stage’s skilled collection of actors will no doubt smooth out what they can, and eventually make this chipper production “as swift in motion as a ball.”

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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