Michael L. Quintos
Apparently stage plays, too, aren't immune to that go-to trend that stage musicals perpetually practice time and time again: mining existing films for source material to adapt for the theater.
This time around, the source material is "Shakespeare in Love," the John Madden-directed 1998 period romantic comedy that won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. The Miramax/Universal Pictures film also earned Best Original Screenplay trophies for its screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.
Witty, enchanting, and joyously self-referential, the film fantasizes a story involving young, virile William Shakespeare (played by swoon-worthy Joseph Fiennes), who quells a bout of writer's block by secretly romancing a pre-betrothed manor-borne Lady named Viola de Lesseps (played by Gwyneth Paltrow, in a role that won her an Oscar). The movie wonderfully imagines that their euphoric, sexually-charged, very taboo dalliance apparently becomes the inspiration for the Bard's infamous star-crossed tragedy "Romeo and Juliet."
And thus begins a humorously fictionalized origin story. In between the sexual romps and the passionate orations of love, the film showcases a cheeky behind-the-scenes look at how these enterprising Elizabethan era folks—actors, writers, muses, theater owners, and financiers—created their works of theatrical art, which can be appreciated by both the nobility (Queen Elizabeth I is a fan) and the gentry (even the poor can enter the theater with very little coin).
The plot of the film, set in London, 1593, remains fairly intact in Lee Hall's mostly delightful if slightly diluted stage version of “SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE,” now continuing performances in a gorgeous-looking new regional production at Orange County's Tony Award-winning theater South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through February 10, 2018. Directed by SCR's own Artistic Director Marc Masterson, this spunky love letter to the theater is chockfull of stagecraft-insider amusements and fun-to-find Shakespearean Easter Eggs that both aficionados and casual fans will appreciate.
But, shockingly, despite the spectacular production values and the beguiling, gusto-bathed performances of its large ensemble cast, this stage adaptation somehow loses some of the inescapable romanticism that is so much more prevalent in the original film.
Granted, adapting this film is indeed quite a task. Aside from the obvious benefit of film editing and transitions, larger budgets, and an environmental openness not encumbered by theater walls, the movie has a far better set of toys to play with to fully display its made-up shenanigans.
The stage play version of “SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE,” however, is understandably forced to truncate some plot points, settings, and scenarios in order to speed up and confine the action within what can be placed on the stage. Live theater, naturally, introduces a set of parameters that aren't present to hinder how certain scenes are depicted on a film. Motion pictures enjoy the advantages of having camera(s) focused on certain elements, or having the ability for locale changes within a split second. I'm actually floored at how smooth and seamless SCR's play transitions from one scene to the next and how it handles certain moments lifted from the film.
For SCR's staging in particular, I think it's a splendid bit of efficient maneuvering overall, which, for the most part, works well in retelling the same exact narratives featured in the film. I marvel at the logistics of this play—which presumably requires its enormous cast to zip in and out alongside or past each other in such a strategically mapped-out way. Like figurines on a war strategy map moved every which way by Commander Masterson, every single actor requires precision and concentration, while still keeping in character and dolling out bon mots of comedy gold, and working in conjunction with lighting, sound, and even the on-stage band. Kudos to director Masterson and his well-deployed troop/troupe for making it work and for keeping us laughing.
Plus… I mean, isn't it safe to assume that a story about the creative process of putting on a play would work better as a, well… a play?
Funny enough, most of these technical aspects incorporated in service to the play didn't harm it. But what does suffer a bit, though, in the journey from the big screen to the stage is the dilution of the romance between our central lovers, which poses a somewhat forgivable if not an entirely forgettable flaw in the play.
Is it merely because the film allowed for several scenes of overt sensuality and beautifully-photographed romantic moments that a play just doesn't have the luxury of recreating? Perhaps.
Here, the supposedly passionate love affair between Viola (Carmela Corbett) and Will Shakespeare (Paul David Story) doesn't seem to have the same urgency or palpable presence as it did in the film. Will and Violet do make a pretty couple, but I'm not wholly convinced that the Will in this play would make such career-ending sacrifices for the Viola in this play.
The moment in which Will spies on Viola reciting his poetry verbatim—the very moment the story says is when Will first fell for her at first sight—didn't have the same impact for me here as it did when the same scenario was first shown in the movie… despite the presence of a balcony. This instance is one of many missed opportunities in the staging that could've been fixed to alleviate this romance downgrade. Corbett and Story—two very excellent actors tasked here to portray the lovers—do manage to create more chemistry in the second act, which helps a lot in selling the parallel premise that this supposed romance is the "real life" inspiration for what is arguably one of the most romantic love stories of all time.
Still… That's a tad problematic—considering the title of the play isn't "Shakespeare in the Process of Writing." In essence, the romance almost becomes just a B-storyline for the play, when, really, it is supposed to be the whole raison d'être that everything is hinging on—the audience seeing and believing in the love blossoming between two characters caught in a world that doesn't allow for them to be with each other… and how that forbidden romance is repurposed for Shakespeare's new theater piece.
To the play's benefit, the story of the creation of "Romeo and Juliet"—now promoted to be this iteration's primary A-storyline—becomes an even more wildly enjoyable, wonderfully funny set of happenstances that keeps this “SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE” very entertaining. I should have known from the start of the play that this was going to be the case with this adaptation.
When the lights go up, we see Will, center stage behind a desk, struggling to complete a sentence as he is surrounded by the entire cast hovering behind him eavesdropping.
"Shall I compare thee… to…" he recites then pauses, unable to finish. He repeats the incomplete thought over and over again, struggling each time.
From there, we are introduced to a cavalcade of merry men hell-bent into making sure Shakespeare's latest theatrical effort, a comedy initially titled "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter" becomes a huge success. Unfortunately, as we witnessed at the start of the play, the Bard has writer's block and has barely even begun churning out pages for it.
It's too bad because he has already promised this new comedy to Richard Burbage (Louis Lotorto), owner of the Curtain Theatre, who has already advanced him payment for it and is now demanding its completion. But unbeknownst to Burbage, Philip Henslowe (the hilarious Bo Foxworth), the owner of the competing Rose Theatre, is already going forward with the production himself. After being physically threatened by wicked loanshark Fennyman (the very funny William Francis McGuire), Henslowe has promised to pay back his debts by giving Fennyman the profits from Shakespeare's next hit play, even though it technically doesn't exist.
Will often turns to his pal and fellow playwright peer Christopher "Kit" Marlowe (the reliably awesome Corey Brill) for advice who, in turn, seems to be genuinely glad to provide. (On a side note, I really like that the play allowed the more frequent appearances of Marlowe in the play, an upgrade from his small cameo in the film—one of the many slight changes I liked in this stage version).
Highly motivated, Henslowe proceeds with auditions anyway. Shakespeare is especially enamored by an auditioning prospect going by the name Thomas Kent, who came effortlessly spouting Shakespeare's lines from "Two Gentlemen of Verona" with great passion and feeling. Shakespeare feels he has finally found his Romeo! Alas, Thomas Kent is really Viola in disguise, who is surprised to be auditioning directly for Shakespeare himself (she's a secret Shakespeare super-fan, whose motivation in life is love, poetry, and adventure—things she sees in Shakespeare's writings).
Startled, she runs off while Shakespeare gives chase… all the way to her parents' grand estate.
Once Shakespeare learns of Viola's true identity, the two admit their feelings for one another and begin a secret courtship, even though Viola's parents have already promised her off to marry the icky Lord Wessex (Bill Brochtrup), subject to the approval by Queen Elizabeth I (Elyse Mirto), of course.
By day, Viola continues to rehearse Shakespeare's play disguised as Thomas Kent—because it is against the law for women to be acting in plays. The madly-in-love Will, for his part, is extra inspired to write out page after page of great stuff—so much so that Fennyman (who is rewarded with a small role in the play as the Apothecary) isn't too upset that the comedy play has now morphed into this beautiful, ultimately tragic love story that often reduces the cast to tears during rehearsal. Once just a thug, Fennyman has evolved, thanks to the play.
"This isn't entertainment," he bellows. "This is ART!"
But, of course, all of this happiness is fleeting. Threats of all theaters being shut down for indecency by the Master of Revels Edmund Tilney (David Nevell) is always hovering in the horizon. Burbage will probably soon realize his play has been hijacked. Lord Wessex might just catch Viola cheating on him. Viola may be discovered as a cast member in the play.
Luckily, Henslowe—ever the optimist—thinks even the worst troubles will find a way to solve themselves and all will work out in the end.
"One of life's mysteries," he casually declares.
Funny, irreverent, and clever as can be, “SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE,” as a stage play, still works as a whole and can stand on its own merits. Despite my gripe about this iteration being less romantic compared to its source material, I found it to be warmly enjoyable in tone and consistently captivating in its hilarious depiction of the creation of a famous theater piece. My gosh, who wouldn't want to be a fly on the wall in the first EVER production of "Romeo and Juliet?"
The play does borrow a lot of the cheekier moments directly from the film, some of which play off really well, while others sort of just whiz by, lost to the sheer volume of back-and-forth dialogue. Much of "Romeo and Juliet" is also incorporated into the play, most notably its tragic ending that is still, for me, one of the most heartbreaking pieces of drama ever written.
I also loved discovering the many Shakespeare Easter eggs sprinkled generously throughout the play (some more easily recognized than others). Lines from "Romeo and Juliet" are, naturally, referenced the most, but other works are hinted in the dialogue, making the argument that Shakespeare was easily inspired by his surroundings (the fact that Marlowe offers ideas directly to Shakespeare further stokes the long-whispered rumors that Marlowe's work may actually be much more embedded into Shakespeare's writings than not).
This production's technical aspects are also beyond superb. Ralph Funicello's bi-level stage set design provides a proper, believably antiqued canvas to show off Susan Tsu's sumptuous costumes that feel like intricately fabricated works of art (just wait until Queen Elizabeth I's costumes—stunning!) Jaymi Lee Smith's lighting design and Jeff Polunas' sound design completes the Shakespearean mood.
Musical director Scott Waara and Lex Leigh are the talented musicians perched on one side of the second floor of the set, providing background mood music as well as original compositions by Paddy Cunneen that help move the story forward or allow for ethereal, surround sound interstitials to carry the audience over to the next scene. Hilariously, a character would sometimes yell at the band to stop playing. Although treated as a running joke, the incidental music does outstay its welcome sometimes, only because it drowns out some of the dialogue from the cast, who, curiously, aren't microphoned for the show even though music is incorporated into the play.
Above all else, I am especially impressed by the show's terrific, in-sync cast of actors, one of the largest ensembles I've seen on this stage. Besides great work from leads Story and Corbett, Foxworth and McGuire were a comical dream team. Mirto's Queen is a truly regal, unforgettable presence as is the slightly fey Wessex, as portrayed by Brochtrup. Also worth noting are Amelia White as Viola's harried Nurse, Nick Gabriel as actor-extraordinaire Ned Alleyn, Ricky Abilez as the Shakespeare-lusting Juliet stand-in, and Bing Putney as the naughty, violence-loving John Webster. These supporting players make humorous, memorable turns in their respective roles. Kudos too for Stephen Caffrey, Alicia Erlinger, Matthew Henerson, James MacEwan, Aaron McGee, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Adam Silver, and Fleur Zanna for being the hardworking members of the ensemble tasked with multiple roles among them.
A delightful yet slightly flawed production, “SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE” is, overall, still a sumptuous visual feast filled with great humor and an enchanting overarching story that pays homage to the art of theater creation. Fans of the film will enjoy much of it—I myself am glad to have brushed up on the movie the day before I saw the play as a quick reminder of the original source material and how it's mirrored on stage. You'll definitely love its fun cheeky-ness and every witty Shakespeare reference it mic-drops from every corner of the stage.
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Jordan Kubat and Tania Thompson for South Coast Repertory.
“SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE” continues at South Coast Repertory through February 10, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.