“Shall I compare … compare … compare thee … to a mourner’s play?”
As a cast of Elizabethan characters of all shapes, sizes, and classes hover over his every word (with many looks of disbelief and disapproval of the lines he is currently creating), young Will Shakespeare once again takes his feathered pen up to compose a sonnet. Only after a whispered “summer’s day” comes from his best pal and more-popular-playwright-than-he, Kit Marlowe, does his inspiration begin to kick in (especially as Kit continues to prod with more choice words).
Every writer certainly has a slump from time to time, but Will’s is bigger than Falstaff’s belly. He is fiercely searching for a new muse in his life, someone who can save him from yet another lame comedy about pirates and their dogs. That his inspiration will arrive as a young woman of wealth — one already betrothed to a Lord but one is desperate to be on the stage that English law forbids her to be so — is just the kind of set-up any young playwright might die a thousand deaths to have. Certainly it worked well for Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard as the backbone for their 1998 Academy Award winning film Shakespeare in Love, and it is a tantalizing backdrop for the U.S. premiere of the play by the same name, adapted to the stage by Lee Hall and in repertory at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Framed as a play within a play, Shakespeare in Love takes us back to the late sixteenth century as the playwright-in-the-making, still early in his career, is looking for an advance for his next play from one (or both) of London’s rival troupes as well as an idea for a play to follow his recent Two Gentleman of Verona. The Queen (as in Elizabeth) has requested a play with a dog in it; the theatre entrepreneur Henslowe has hired him to write a comedy entitled Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter; but Kit Marlowe keeps pumping him with ideas about a love story of the son and daughter of two rival families — a story that is destined to be as tragic as it is beautiful. That story begins to play out in real life when Will meets Viola de Lesseps after sneaking into a party her father is giving in honor of her expected engagement to Lord Wessex — a union she has no interest in making. What Viola does want to do is to fall in love with the handsome playwright she just kissed (and much more) on the sly at her engagement party as well as to be in his play. To do the latter, she dresses as a new actor in town named Thomas Kent, and lands the lead role of someone called Romeo in Will’s play — one he writes as the two secret lovers live the developing script day by day (actually night by night) with new pages guiding both rehearsals and their making of love. All the while, even though Will keeps promising the impatient Henslowe that a happy ending (and maybe a pirate or two) is coming, everything in the emerging script and in his own life begins to point otherwise.
William DeMerritt and Jamie Ann Romero could hardly be better than they are as Will and Viola. Mr. DeMerritt has all the angst, impatience, and near-suicidal tendencies of a writer in trouble until he transforms into an energized and ebullient creator of iambic pentameter lines that seem to flow with full ease of guaranteed excellence. That metamorphosis is seen and heard in his whole demeanor as he embodies, after meeting his Juliet, the very Romeo he is creating word for word.
As Thomas the actor, Viola the aristocrat, and Viola the lover, Ms. Romero reigns supreme. When the disguised Thomas, she is a talented Romeo in rehearsal whose lines are delivered with a sensitivity and sensuality that her fellow actors fully admire (none but Will knowing that there is a reason this Thomas brings something unique they have never seen before among their colleagues on stage). As Viola the betrothed, Ms. Romero is reluctantly dutiful, courageously sneaky, and proudly resistant all at the same time (especially the last when repeatedly barked commands by her fiancé Lord Wessex, played with full snobbery and haughtiness by Al Espinosa). But when Viola the lover, Jamie Ann Romero is a Juliet prototype who could inspire almost any would-be poet; and when arm-in-arm with her Will, the two create a script that causes all watching hearts to skip more than a beat or two.
Like in most of the Bard’s canon of plays, many of the minor, lower-class characters of Shakespeare in Love are memorably delicious and delightful. Similar to the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Viola’s nurse is a often show unto herself, well worth watching every moment she is on stage. K. T. Vogt lets out not just one or two but seemingly dozens of hilarious shrieks and screams of surprise and shock as the Nurse who supports and continually covers up on the sly Viola’s love affair with Will. Brent Hinkley is Henslowe, the impatient and worried owner of the Rose Theatre, whose constant grin of missing teeth betrays the persistent pushiness he tries to use to get Will to write in his pirates and open the play on time.
An impish dwarf of a kid named John Webster, as played by Preston Mead, has a myriad of ways to don a face-filling frown; and while he plays the bad boy, it is tough in the end not to love him. James Ryen is a seasoned actor maned Ned Alleyn, played larger in life in his handsome stature, deeply resonate voice, extended movements of hands and arms, and certainly in his displayed and compassionate heart for fellow actors.
Slowing winning the hearts of his fellow actors as well as we the audience is Rex Young as a stuttering, wanna-be thespian who becomes an unlikely star of both the plays we watch. Kevin Kenerly struts around like a banty rooster in the barnyard as Burbage, Henslowe’s rival theatre owner, and proves that the union among actors is even stronger than the drive to secure one’s own packed house.
As Queen Elizabeth, Kate Mulligan not only gets to play the role often bestowed on Helen Mirren, she gets to wear the most magnificent among many eye-popping, stunning costumes created by Susan Tsu — period outfits so fabulous in detail and overall effect as to be well worth the evening’s ticket price. Rachel Hauck’s simple rotating, raised platform becomes the perfect staging area for both plays in progress, plays that mesh and mingle with dexterity under the inspired direction of Christopher Liam Moore. Ms. Hauck’s second-level platform enables the needed Juliet balcony and a second stage for the parallel plays while behind it, panoramic scenes, colors, and designs are projected in splendid arrays as designed by Shawn Duan. Lighting by Xavier Pierce is exquisitely placed in spots and poured into full displays. Finally, multi-instrument musicians Mark Eliot Jacobs and Michael Palzewicz and sweetly intoned vocalist Austin Comfort provide period pieces throughout — except when repeated shushed by almost every actor at one time or another, a joke ongoing that punctuates the play with added mirth.
Lee Hall’s adaptation of the Norman/Stoppard screenplay emphasizes even more than the original the determination of one woman to forge a place on the world’s stage — or at least on London’s — for talented actors of her sex. While we as audience are moved by the doomed love story of Romeo and Juliet, we cannot help but be thrilled by the stand this fictional feminist of sorts takes in the stead of all the women who did dare to make their historic ways onto the forbidden stage. Brava and bravo to Viola and to Lee Hall as well as to OSF for this engaging, enthralling, and educating Shakespeare in Love.
Rating: 5 E
Photo by Jenny Graham
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