Review: “Shakespeare in Love”

A scene from “Shakespeare in Love” now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier through June 11. – Liz Lauren

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
When: through June 11
Tickets: $58-$88
Phone: 312-595-5600By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Adapting a hit film for the stage can be perilous, but the practice has only accelerated in recent years. Happily “Shakespeare in Love,” based on the beloved 1998 Academy Award-winning movie with a screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, avoids the pitfalls and exploits the possibilities of the transformation.

Lee Hall’s adaptation, which enjoyed a well-received world premiere in London’s West End (coproduced by Disney Theatrical Productions) and now is at Chicago Shakepeare Theater in a new production nicely directed by Rachel Rockwell, follows the film pretty closely. Much of the dialogue even comes directly from Norman and Stoppard, a boon because it bristles with wit and wisdom.

Besides being a romance and a fanciful riff on how Shakespeare might have found his voice and written “Romeo and Juliet,” the play is a paean to the theater by men obviously besotted by everything from the mystery of how shows elude impending disaster and come together to the business details. Toying with notions of art mirroring life and visa versa, it posits an Elizabethan England not so very different from our own time, except for the fact that women weren’t allowed on the stage and theater people were held in disrepute. For fans of the Bard and the period, it’s also an elaborate game with lines from his yet-to-be-written works popping up in unexpected contexts, and his contemporaries putting in appearances.

The action starts in 1593, and young Will (an engaging Nick Rehberger) has writers’ block. He’s trying to compose a poem that begins “Let me compare…” and can’t get beyond “thee,” when along comes his friend Kit Marlowe (Michael Perez, in one of the evening’s sparkling supporting performances), who generously helps him out. Considered the preeminent playwright of the day, Marlowe already had had great success with “Tamburlaine the Great” and “Doctor Faustus,” among others, and his relationship with Shakespeare and tragic fate are cannily incorporated to the extent that the actors trying out for Will’s new play all use a speech from one of Marlowe’s as their audition text.

That play is supposed to be “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter,” but Will hasn’t written a word of it yet. He’s also promised it to, and gotten advances from, both Philip Henslowe (Larry Yando, with his usual sly comic timing), who runs the Admiral’s Men and owns the Rose Theatre, and Richard Burbage (Timothy D. Stickney, sublimely hammy), the leading actor who heads the rival Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Curtain Theatre.

With Marlowe’s encouragement, Will finds the inspiration he needs when he falls in love with Viola de Lesseps (Kate McGonigle, charming and spirited), a rich merchant’s daughter who wants to be an actor so badly that she disguises herself as “Thomas Kent” and auditions for the part of Romeo. Given the motley crew already cast by the desperate Henslowe, Will is delighted by the newcomer even before he discovers her true identity and is totally smitten.

The heart of the story hinges on the way the affair between Will and Viola influences the creation of Will’s play, which is renamed “Romeo and Juliet” and morphs from a comedy into a tragedy. Viola is betrothed to Lord Wessex (Dennis Grimes) just as Juliet is to Paris, but she’s so upset when she learns Will is married and has children that she vows not to see him again. That is until she thinks he’s been killed and is overjoyed to find that isn’t the case.

Meanwhile, Will is wracked with guilt over what he believes is his part in Marlowe’s murder, and this shows up in the darkening tone of his play and the death of Mercutio, the role assigned to the Admiral’s Men’s leading actor Ned Alleyn (letter-perfect Luigi Sottile, who brings the stage to life). In the end, of course, the “real” people are more practical than those in the tragedy: Viola marries Wessex and sails off to Virginia; Will starts working on his next play, “Twelfth Night,” at the queen’s command, and no one kills him- or herself.

The sheer joy of a life in the theater shines through over and over. The acting bug even bites Hugh Fennyman (Ron E. Rains), the money man who at the beginning is ready to roast Henslowe over hot coals for nonpayment. Henslowe’s tailor (Scott Danielson), a stutterer cast in a small part, comes through loud and clear when he has to. Burbage and his men storm in with swords to get Will’s script in one scene, but when Edmund Tilney, Lord of the Revels (Jerre Dye) shuts down the Rose for indecent behavior, Burbage is the one who comes to the rescue by offering the Curtain. Indeed, the boy who hangs around wanting to play Ethel (Jake Helm alternating with Matthew Uzarraga) and causes the trouble also saves the day by swiping the script.

That boy-for whom the bloodier things are, the better-turns out to be John Webster, and Queen Elizabeth I’s reaction when she learns his name is one of the little insider jokes to delight aficionados. Linda Reiter is spot-on in the role and, on opening night, she even turned a seeming mechanical glitch into a comic triumph. She also delivers the verdict on Will’s “Romeo and Juliet” with the underlying message that love and art endure regardless of the vagaries of life.

Rockwell’s staging on Scott Davis’ revolving set flows well and has great musicality, thanks partly to a new score by musical director Neil Bartram (though I wish it had more of an Elizabethan tone). Credit for the striking lighting goes to Robert Wierzel, and Susan E. Mickey is responsible for the fine costumes. Special kudos to wig and make-up designer Richard Jarvie for Queen Elizabeth I’s hairdo and, in the excellent cast, to a feisty little pup named Dash who plays Spot (as in “out damned…”)- because the queen isn’t the only one who loves a dog.