Shakespeare in Love presents a fictionalized account of William Shakespeare’s struggle to write Romeo and Juliet. As I entered the theater, I was fully expecting a bombastic, exaggerated, even farcical comedy. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the show’s charm, wit, and truthfulness. This delightful play follows Shakespeare as he enters into his own star-crossed love story and finds his muse in a passionate aspiring actress named Viola de Lesseps.
The play opens on William Shakespeare, played by Charlie Thurston. Broke and utterly uninspired, he has promised two separate producers a script for a new comedy about Romeo and Ethel, the pirate king’s daughter. He fails to create anything worthwhile until a young man by the name of Thomas Kent (who is really the fervent and beautiful Viola de Lesseps in disguise) auditions for his new production and captivates Shakespeare with his (her) performance. Later that evening, Shakespeare and his friend Kit Marlowe make their way to a party at the de Lesseps’, where they believe Thomas Kent is staying. There, he meets and instantly falls in love with Viola, unaware of her double identity and in spite of the fact that she is betrothed to another man. The two commence a secret love affair, which inspires Shakespeare to transform “Romeo and Ethel” into Romeo and Juliet, the beloved tale of two star-crossed lovers.
Though Shakespeare quickly learns that his love and his lead actor are one in the same, Viola (Marina Shay) continues rehearsing the part of Romeo. In the meantime, Viola’s fiancée, Lord Wessex, plots to kill Shakespeare (whose name, he believes, is Marlow). When a young actor in the company discovers that the role of Romeo is being played by a woman, he reveals it to the Master of Revels (Paul Bugallo), who exposes her identity and closes the Rose Theatre where Romeo and Juliet was to be performed. Producer Richard Burbage (Brian Owen) offers to let the company play at his Curtain Theatre, and Shakespeare himself takes on the role of Romeo. On the morning of opening night, Viola is married to her betrothed, Lord Wessex (Peter Hargrave), but escapes briefly to the theater to see the first performance of Romeo and Juliet and learns that the actor playing Juliet is unable to perform. Viola takes the stage and delivers one final inspiring performance. She then sails with her husband to Virginia, inspiring Shakespeare once again, this time writing The Twelfth Night as he imagines her surviving a shipwreck, escaping her fate and starting her life anew.
The story itself is enchanting, with a perfect balance of romance and humor. The relationship between Will and Viola is beautifully crafted, and Shakespeare’s pitiful band of players and the company’s lack of confidence in their own success reminded me of many of my own theatrical adventures. The clever references to Shakespeare’s other works amused even Shakespeare critics (like me). Unfortunately, the story’s ending left a bad taste in my mouth, and not simply because it was sad. During one scene, Lord Wessex attempts to rape his wife-to-be. When she is so frightened by his advances that she faints, he begins to take what he believes is his, and Viola is only saved by Shakespeare’s entrance. The thought that Viola’s future is doomed to be not only unhappy but ultimately plagued by this kind of terror was incredibly disconcerting. Nevertheless, the ultimate spirit of the play was one of love and hope.
The directing was impeccable. From the cast-performed musical curtain speech to the perfectly integrated design elements to the seamless transitions, director Laura Kepley immaculately created and conveyed the atmosphere of Elizabethan rock ‘n’ roll that inspired her own vision of the play. The simple two-platform wooden set, designed by Lex Liang, with bare wooden stairs and scaffolding-like railings, evoked images of Tudor buildings and the Globe Theater itself. The sung curtain speech, live percussion, gorgeous, colorful lighting design by Russell H. Champa, and the general spirit of revelry induced a mental and emotional journey back to renaissance England without the intimidation that traditionally accompanies watching a Shakespeare work.
Lex Liang’s costumes further enhanced the production’s approachability. Putting Shakespeare and his colleagues in leather and skinny jeans not only provided a visual contrast between the players and the more wealthy, aristocratic characters such as Viola and her father, who were more traditionally dressed but more importantly helped the audience relate to these characters much more effectively. That was Kepley’s goal, and she absolutely nailed it.
The acting, for the most part, was equally strong and effective. The entire ensemble portrayed their wonderfully quirky characters both skillfully and honestly. Though the characters could have easily been overly silly or even absurd, the actors’ intelligence and subtlety (when needed) insured that their characters were just as relatable as the rest of the production. In fact, many of them reminded me of people I have met in the theatre. Charlie Thurston gave a particularly entertaining performance as Will Shakespeare. He alternated perfectly between the play’s humorous and more serious moments, stirring the audience’s sympathy and eliciting some of the show’s biggest laughs with his desperate antics.
His counterpart, Marina Shay in the role of Viola de Lesseps, was not quite as adept at playing both elements of the story. Though she was funny, her more dramatic moments were plagued by the forceful wavering of her voice and the constant theatrical head movements, which felt exaggerated rather than truthful. She definitely had her moments though; I still felt the same sympathy for her character that I did for Will Shakespeare.
Shakespeare in Love at the Cleveland Play House is a lovely show that will entertain Shakespeare’s biggest fans, his harshest critics, and those who have yet to experience his work. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and would recommend the show to anyone who asked.
Shakespeare in Love plays at the Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square through October 1st. Tickets can be purchased here.
By: Melissa Levine