Speakeasy’s ‘Shakespeare in Love’ An Absolute Charmer

(Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)


by Mike Hoban


‘Shakespeare in Love’ – Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard; Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall; Directed by Scott Edmiston; Original Music/Music Direction/Sound Design by David Reiffel; Choreography/Movement by Judith Chaffee; Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow. Presented by Speakeasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston through February 10


You don’t have to know and/or love Shakespeare to be utterly charmed by Shakespeare in Love, the stage adaptation of the Academy Award-winning film now being given a spirited New England premiere by Speakeasy Stage. In fact, since this is a comedy about young Will Shakespeare rather than one by William Shakespeare, the laughter comes a lot more spontaneously than when one needs to run the jokes through the Olde English Google translator of the mind. But whether you’re a Shakespearean scholar or only know his work from the “Gilligan’s Island” episode where Harold Hecuba stages Hamlet, this production is a comic delight.


It’s 1593 and young Will (George Olesky) is stymied as struggles to finish the phrase “Shall I compare thee to a sum…a sum…a something…”. In pops his good friend and fellow playwright (and alleged co-writer) Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, who suggests that Shakespeare – given the sad state of affairs in his marital chamber – might find inspiration through a new love affair. Will’s also broke, but is quickly put to work by theater owner Henslowe (who is indebted to Victorian loan shark Fennyman) to write a comedy, Romeo and Ethel, Daughter of the Pirate King (it obviously evolves – thanks to Marlowe and Will’s muse, Viola), that will do well enough to get him out of debt to his lender and new theater backer, Fennyman.


(Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)


In the meantime, Shakespeare has a new play about to be performed for the Queen (a hilarious deadpan cameo by Nancy Carroll), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, featuring a dog named Spot – which the Queen has demanded – who steals the show. The next day at auditions for Romeo, Shakespeare and Henslowe are suffering through a succession of amateur “actors”, when a young boy, Sir Thomas Kent, appears and blows Shakespeare away with a line reading from The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Women are not allowed to appear on stage during Shakespeare’s time, and Kent is actually Viola de Lesseps, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant. Viola runs from the audition when she fears being exposed as a woman, and Shakespeare follows her to her father’s estate where a party is being given.

Viola’s father, Sir Robert, is in the process of setting her up to marry Lord Wessex, a man with a title and not much else except a hankering for a fat dowry – and certainly not looking for love. In exchange for his daughter, Sir Robert’s heirs will be bestowed with the Wessex title. But love intervenes when Will meets the lovely Viola, and the comedy, Romeo and Ethel, Daughter of the Pirate King becomes the tragic love story of the ages.


(Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)


Like a Shakespeare play, the plot can be a little confusing at times (apparently it helps to have seen the movie), but there is so much fun stuff going on that it matters little. The behind the scenes look at Victorian theater, for instance, is priceless. Apparently, artistic integrity is as ill-respected in Shakespeare’s day as in modern Los Angeles, as plays are rife with stunt casting to appease the bankrollers of productions and target demographics (in this case the Queen – who happens to think Two Gentlemen really needed a dog). There are also lots of bad puns on lines from the Bard (including a hilarious take off on “Spot! Spot! Out, damn Spot!” as the dog is being chased off stage) that deliver laughs. There’s also a good bit of entertaining swordplay, featuring veteran actor/fight choreographers Omar Robinson (as Richard Burbage) and Jessie Hinson (as Ned Alleyn).


The show is well cast, starting with the luminescent Jennifer Ellis. Anyone who saw her brilliant work in musical roles such as Eliza in My Fair Lady at the Lyric and as Julie Jordan in the underappreciated gem Carousel at the Reagle last year can attest, she is capable of elevating roles to extraordinary heights. She brings the same star qualities to comic or straight acting roles, and it’s a treat to watch as both Viola and Tom Kent in this production (and she even gets a chance to show off her gorgeous soprano voice).


The dashing Olesky is a good pick as Shakespeare, countering the required bravado with an appropriate dose of humility as his pal Marlowe (played with a devilish cleverness by Eddie Shields) guides his playwriting. Carolyn Saxon brings a boundless enthusiasm for life to the role of Nurse, and Lewis D. Wheeler plays well against type as the slimy Lord Wessex. There are too many good performances to list, but Cameron Gosselin’s maniacal John Webster and Steve Auger’s drunken sot of a tavern-keeper are hysterical.


Shakespeare in Love may not be Shakespeare, but it’s a wonderful way to spend a chilly winter’s evening. For more info, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/shakespeare-in-love/



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