CPH’s ‘Shakespeare in Love’ finds its muse, and then some
By Bob Abelman
Turning a screenplay into a stage play is an iffy enterprise.
One need only have seen the touring production of “Dirty Dancing” at Playhouse Square, the musical “Bring It On” at the Beck Center or last year’s “Disney’s Freaky Friday” at the Cleveland Play House to understand the truth in this understatement.
CPH’s current staging of “Shakespeare in Love” suggests that the company has not shied away from screen-to-stage projects. But it has also learned a lesson from all that went wrong with “Freaky Friday,” resulting in all that goes right in this gorgeous, thoroughly entertaining, hopelessly romantic and absolutely engrossing production.
One of the things done right is placing Laura Kepley at the helm, for her creative vision, sense of humor and ability to hire top-tier designers the likes of Lex Liang (scenic and costume), Russell H. Champa (lighting), Drew Francher and David Shimotakahara (stage combat and choreography, respectively) and Jane Shaw (sound), is unparalleled.
She and her team manage to turn cinematic moments into remarkable stage magic and the Allen Theatre performance space into a London playhouse with the kinds of artistic bells and whistles they wish they had in 1593.
The play, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s film, was first produced in London in 2014 and by-passed Broadway on its way to the Stratford Festival in Canada for its North American premier.
While there, critics commented that this work would have worked better as a musical.
This CPH production nearly is, thanks to the infusion of Elizabethan ditties beautifully sung by the cast and accompanied by on-stage performers (Drew Bastian, Mariah Burks and Peter Hargrave) under Nathan Motta’s superb direction.
The play opens with Will Shakespeare (a charming and immediately accessible Charlie Thursto) struggling with writers’ block and paupers’ lament.
His latest commission is a month behind schedule and he can’t even finish his latest sonnet (“Shall I compare thee to a … to a …?”) without fellow poet Kit Marlowe (the delightful Andhy Mendez) serving as his personal thesaurus and fan base. Cajoled by his desperate producer Henslowe (Donald Carrier, milking every comic moment in the script, of which they are many), young Shakespeare holds auditions for his as-yet-unwritten comedy, “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.”
A wealthy merchant’s daughter, Viola de Lesseps (the deliciously feisty Marina Shay), is in love with Shakespeare’s plays and dons a male disguise in order to audition. Shakespeare is impressed and casts “him” as Romeo, unaware that “he” is a woman who would otherwise be banned by law from the Elizabethan stage.
When Shakespeare eventually lays eyes on Viola in her true form, his writers’ block is vanished and work on the comedy moves forward. Numerous obstacles hinder the star-crossed lovers, including Viola’s engagement to the disdainful Lord Wessex (a perfectly repugnant Peter Hargrave), as sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth (the magnificent Tina Stafford, who also doubles as Nurse).
As the magnetic attraction and love between Shakespeare and Viola grows complicated, arguably sexier and more playful than the film version, and then impossible to sustain, the play being written similarly shifts from comedy to tragedy and takes on the title “Romeo and Juliet.”
This stage production embraces the same play-within-a-play structure as the film, but it is significantly funnier thanks to Kepley’s ability to push a running gag to the point of gagging without ever going over the edge. It is abetted by a gifted ensemble with impeccable comic timing – particularly Grant Goodman as larger-than-life player Ned Alleyn, Brian Owen as the flamboyant Burbage, and Evan Zes as producer Fennyman.
Taking full advantage of the live nature of this theatrical production, Kepley invades the personal space of the audience by staging chases and assorted acts of rowdiness in front of the stage and into the Allen Theater aisles.
The play, like the film, makes glancing reference to the much-debated notion that Shakespeare may not have written all his own plays, something that is explored in greater depth and detail in the 2011 political thriller “Anonymous.” But, mostly, it suggests the collaborative nature of art at the time and is clearly an unapologetic love letter to the Bard.
It is also loaded with enough historical inaccuracies to cause Shakespeare purists, who know that the referenced Sonnet 18 and comedy “Twelfth Night” were written long after the time of this play, to revolt. If they do, they are missing the point of this play. It is, above all else, a wonderfully romantic romp.
As such, this play and this CPH production of it are not to be missed. CV
“Shakespeare in Love”
WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Oct. 1
TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $90, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 18, 2017.
Lead image: Charlie Thurston (Will Shakespeare) and the cast of “Shakespeare in Love.” Photo / Roger Mastroianni