Story: Will Shakespeare is in a bind. He’s suffering from a severe case of writer’s block even as Henslowe, owner of a theater where Will’s works sometimes are performed, presses him to deliver his latest play. That’s because Henslowe is behind on his debt to shrewd businessman Fennyman, a man who doesn’t cotton to welchers.
Riding to Will’s rescue is his pal and literary rival, acclaimed poet Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, who gives Will advice and even a rudimentary outline for Shakespeare’s next play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. Frantically in need of some quick money, Henslowe orders Shakespeare to hold auditions for Will’s still incomplete play.
Viola de Lesseps, daughter of a wealthy merchant, is a big admirer of Will’s abilities and also yearns to perform on the stage, something forbidden to women in Elizabethan England in 1593. So, she appears at the audition disguised as a young man named “Thomas Kent,” and immediately impresses Will with her superior talent before quickly disappearing.
Shakespeare follows ‘Kent’ to the latter’s home and leaves a note with the nurse there for Kent to return to the theater. Later, Will and Kit crash a party at Kent’s house, where Will is smitten by the fair Viola. Her fiance, an opportunistic and failing aristocrat named Wessex, is angered by Will’s mutual attraction with Viola, demanding his name and threatening to kill him. While leaving Shakespeare informs Wessex that his name is ‘Marlowe.’
Inspired by his love for Viola, Shakespeare quickly completes his new play, which is now called Romeo and Juliet. While Will and his players, including the legendary Ned Alleyn, rehearse at Henslowe’s Rose Theatre, rival impresario Richard Burbage arrives, demanding that Will turn over the play which Shakespeare had promised him for his own company.
After foiling Burbage’s plan, Will and his friends celebrate at a local pub, where Henslowe lets slip to ‘Kent’ that Will is already married. Now aware that Viola and Kent are one and the same, Will tells her that he is estranged from his wife. No matter, though, because Viola says she is committed to a loveless life with Wessex, who plans to return with her to his Virginia plantation in the American colonies.
Can Shakespeare and his players go through with a performance of his new show in time to save Henslowe from Fennyman’s wrath? Can all of them avoid prosecution by Queen Elizabeth’s chamberlain, the arrogant Edmund Tilney, for possibly allowing a woman to perform? Will Viola achieve her dream of acting on stage before she honors her father’s wish and marries the insufferable Wessex? As Henslowe is wont to say, “It’s a mystery.”
Highlights: Insight Theatre Company celebrates the 50th production in its history as its 12th season draws to a close with an enchanting presentation of this Elizabethan comedy based on the Best Picture winner of 1998.
Other Info: Released in December 1998, Shakespeare in Love garnered a whopping 13 Academy Award nominations, winning seven, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow and Best Original Screenplay for Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.
The stage adaptation by Lee Hall premiered in London in 2014, with its first American production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017. Insight Theatre Company is one of the first troupes to perform it in the States and perhaps the very first in the Midwest.
Insight’s production is enjoyable and smartly paced thanks to director Suki Peters, whose inspired guidance elicits strong performances from many of her unwieldy- sized cast and adequate ones from others. A recurring problem, however, is the singing by a musical cadre which often sounded off-key on opening night. Hopefully that can be rectified in subsequent performances.
Nonetheless, Robin Weatherall’s sound design is delightful, from his selection of Elizabethan tunes to the peals of thunder permeating a stormy scene. The musicians lending their talents to sung melodies under Catherine Edwards Kopff’s music direction include Rachel Bailey, Mara Bollini, Chuck Brinkley, Ruth Ezell, Cara Langhauser, Catherine Edwards Kopff and Abraham Shaw.
Aaron Dodd and Gwendolyn Wotawa make a charming couple as the lovestruck Bard and his fair Viola in their scenes together. Wotawa also sparkles as she auditions for a role disguised as the gentleman, Thomas Kent, and in her passionate conversations with her supportive nurse, who in turn is portrayed smartly by Michelle Hand.
A real highlight in the production is the savvy portrayal of Kit Marlowe by Spencer Sickmann, who shows the high-styling poet to be a loyal friend to his fellow scribe. He even does a bit of Cyrano de Bergerac as he feeds romantic lines to Will outside Viola’s balcony in a scene which captures Dodd’s flair for comedy. And the penultimate scene between Shakespeare and his late, albeit still genial, friend is both amusing and poignant as performed by Dodd and Sickmann.
Veteran talents Whit Reichert and Joneal Joplin ably demonstrate why they’ve been so highly regarded for so many years with their respective portrayals of the bumbling Henslowe and the pecuniary Fennyman, who turns out to have acting aspirations of his own. There’s also a delicious portrayal by Wendy Renee Greenwood as an unsmiling but sympathetic Queen Elizabeth, a woman who knows something about surviving in a man’s world herself.
There are humorous turns by Carl Overly Jr. as the self-confident Burbage, who is accustomed to getting his way, and by Ryan Lawson-Maeske as Sam, a young man whose changing voice proves propitious to Viola. Shane Signorino makes for a dashing, Errol-Flynnish Ned Alleyn while Robert Ashton brings out the small- minded venality of Tilney.
Ted Drury is OK as the dastardly Wessex, succeeding at the wastrel aristocrat’s sneering sense of superiority, and there are some amusing moments presented in minor roles by Chuck Brinkley, Anthony Wininger, Joseph Garner, John Foughty, Tyler Woods and Riley James, along with Kurt Knoedelseder and Tommy Nolan as Sir Robert and Lady de Lesseps.
Julian King contributes the appealing costumes, Chuck Winning provides the two-tiered set which serves nicely for the balcony scene and features enough doors to allow for easy transportation of various set pieces to the stage, and Jaime Zayas adds effective lighting. Maria Straub-David provides choreography, Katie Orr is props mistress and Erik Kuhn lends the well-staged fight direction.
Just ignore the facts that Virginia wasn’t an English colony in 1593 or that Shakespeare simply adapted an earlier Italian version of Romeo and Juliet. After all, the play’s the thing, and Peters’ direction of her enthusiastic cast shows why it really isn’t a mystery at all that Shakespeare in Love is such an endearing tale.
Play: Shakespeare in Love
Company: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: September 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15
Tickets: $20-$40, contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb