Shakespeare in Love, winner of the 1998 Academy Award for Best Picture, has been adapted for the stage by playwright Lee Hall into an entertaining play now being presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. Hall has based his play on the award-winning screenplay by Mark Norman and Tom Stoppard, preserving much of their work while making judicious changes of his own. The result is both familiar and pleasantly surprising to those who loved the movie, while being romantically entertaining to those new to the story.
We meet Will Shakespeare early in his career. He is visited by his friend and rival playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe who gives him help starting his new play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. At auditions for Romeo Shakespeare meets and is captivated by young actor Thomas Kent, little knowing Kent is really Viola de Lesseps, a stage-struck young heiress. Will and Viola finally meet and fall in love, even though Viola is betrothed to the mean-spirited Earl of Wessex.
Will transforms their romance into his new play, now titled Romeo & Juliet, and we watch as rehearsals proceed and obstacles to the show arise. The play’s climactic scenes are of the first performance of the new play, with Queen Elizabeth I herself proclaiming Shakespeare’s talent in showing the true nature of love in his drama — but suggesting he write a comedy next, for her Twelfth Night festivities. As Shakespeare in Love ends, we find Will struggling for a story idea, with an unexpected visitor giving him inspiration for his new play, aptly titled Twelfth Night.
The cast is quite good. Shakespeare Theatre regular Jon Barker shines as Shakespeare, at turns confident in and doubtful of his writing talent, hopelessly in love and fearing the prospect of heartbreak. His performance is matched by that of Whitney Maris Brown as Viola, a woman ahead of her times, headstrong, romantic, seeking love and adventure and finding both in the Elizabethan theatre — for a time. Barker and Brown make an appealing couple, and the audience finds itself rooting for their happiness throughout.
The supporting cast is outstanding in their recreation of the world of London theatre in all of its rivalry, camaraderie, ego, and tight sense of community. I would single out the performances of Marcus Dean Fuller’s Wessex, a cowardly bully coasting on his title until he can marry money; Edmond Genest and David Andrew Macdonald as rival producers John Henslowe and Richard Burbage; Anthony Marble’s embodiment of Christopher Marlowe; Colin McPhillamy’s prudish Tilney, the Queen’s Master of the Revels and chief foe of the theatre; and Erika Rolfsrud in the dual roles of Viola’s nurse and Queen Elizabeth I. Finally, Dublin Delancey McFinnigan gives a cameo performance that truly delights the audience.
Director Bonnie J. Monte does a good job with her large cast, although the first act appeared to be a bit slow and almost disjointed, especially at the start of the play, and the scene changes appeared to take just a bit too long. Fight Director Rick Sordelet delivers outstanding work in the show’s two battle scenes. It goes without saying that the technical staff at Shakespeare Theatre of NJ — scenic designer Brian Clinnin, costume designer Nikki Delhomme, and lighting designer Steven Rosen — maintain the theatre’s reputation for quality.
Fans of the original movie, Shakespeare aficionados, and anyone looking for a delightful romantic comedy will enjoy this love letter to the rowdy, lusty world of Elizabethan theatre. While thou canst, hie thee to the box office to obtain tickets for Shakespeare in Love!
Shakespeare in Love is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.W. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through November 12, 2017. For tickets and information, visit ShakespeareNJ.org.