Theater Review: Loving ‘Shakespeare In Love’ at PSF
“Shakespeare In Love” could be subtitled “Shakespeare With Writer’s Block.”
William Shakespeare (played by the magnificent Luigi Sottile), taking a page from modern nomenclature, must come up with his next hit.
Quill in hand, centerstage at his desk, backdropped by the impressive wood two-tiered set by Scenic Designer Daniel Conway that evokes The Globe Theater, Shakespeare laps up plot points from his pal, Kit Marlowe (an enthusiastic Justin Adams), as willing and eager as the shaggy dog, Spot (the willing and eager Buddy Igor), that ambles on stage.
Yes, the play’s the thing, and Shakespeare needs more than a pal’s suggestions and man’s best friend. He needs a muse.
Faster than you can say “Romeo And Juliet,” appears one Viola De Lesseps (the sensitively intense Mairin Lee). Shakespeare’s in love.
And so are we with The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) production of the insightful, joyful and wonderful comedy, “Shakespeare In Love,” in its Pennsylvania premiere, through Aug. 5, in repertoire with “Richard II,” July 19 - Aug. 5, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley.
“Shakespeare In Love” director PSF Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy hits all the right notes and tropes in what is the best Shakespeare production, albeit a Shakespeare-themed production, in years at PSF. This is a mounumental achievement by Mulcahy. There are so many extraordinary and marvelous scenes. Plus, the show is bawdy, boisterous and bountiful fun. The PSF production, seen opening night, July 13, for this review, is a delight from beginning to end.
From the casting of the some 24 excellent actors so well-matched to their roles, to an insistence on briskly-delivered dialogue, to complicated head-spinning crowd scenes, to lovely Elizabethan courtly dancing (beautifully staged by Dance Choreographer Erin Sheffield), to swift backstage-front stage point of view shifts, to the staging of thrilling sword fights (by Mulcahy, who is also Fight Director), to rousing music and singing, to a trap-door, to, yes, Spot the dog, Mulcahy’s “Shakespeare In Love” has all you could ask for in a professional theater show.
You’ve heard of a couple’s movie? This is a couple’s play. The romance between Shakespeare (Sottile) and Viola (Lee) is romantic, tinged with youthful enthusiasm and rounded out by life’s circumstances.
Sottile is a buff Bard. Yet he’s much more. His face lights up with words and thoughts. He springs into action. He’s also contemplative, remorseful and resigned. Sottile’s is a scrupulously-nuanced performance.
Lee is never the blushing bride (promised to Lord Wessex (Christian Coulson, who portrays peevishness to the hilarious hilt). Instead she’s a strong, independent woman, even around her Nurse (Jo Twiss, evoking laughter with her every utterance). Lee is delightfully Lucille Ball-like in her darting eyes and asides when she dons a male disguise to audition for “Romeo And Julliet.”
Notable in knockabout humorous supporting roles are Matthew Camardo (Sam) and Kellan McMichael (John Webster).
The bejeweled sumptuous costumes for the men and women by Costume Designer Lisa Zinni are dazzling and provide pageanty, especially those of Queen Elizabeth (an imperious and stunning Starla Benford); Richard Burbage (Christopher Patrick Mullen, putting the sulk in sullen); Ned Alleyn (an energetic Brandon J. Pierce); Fennyman (Christopher Coucill, a very funny man); Wabash (Dave Scheffler, in full-guffaw and deservedly so); Edmund Tilney (Wayne S. Turney, at all times a master of timing), and Henslowe (Richard B.Watson, whose flapdoodle faux affrontery is rivetingly silly).
Viola’s attire is exquisite, including a turquoise gown and a creamy wedding dress.
The gowns especially glow thanks to Mulcahy’s stage blocking and Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen, who uses the full palette from profile spot, to splashes of mood-enhancing color, to lightning (working with Music Designer-Sound Designer Liz Filios).
The music by Paddy Cunneen (from the 2014 London West End premiere) provides an emotional through-line. Larry Lipkis, Emily Kaye Lynn, and Bill Thatcher, who are on stage in the backdrop top tier, play instruments of, or similar to, those of the play’s 1593 London setting.
The stage adaptation by Lee Hall, based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard for the 1998 film (receiving seven Oscars, including best picture and original screenplay), is superb on so many levels. “Shakespeare In Love,” after all, is a backstage show, a play within a play (with dialogue and some scenes from “Romeo And Juliet”). There are insights into the playwriting, casting, rehearsal and financing process. While all of this is presented entertainingly, there’s an undergirding of reality.
That the playright and screenwriters have a deep understanding of the works of Shakespeare can’t be denied. And seeing “Shakespeare In Love” will enhance your appreciation of the Bard. Dialogue, in addition to including some well-known lines and scenes from “Romeo And Juliet,” provides witty insight into how the lines may have been devised. The challenge, of course, is to match wits with the champion and, in this, “Shakespeare In Love” doesn’t disappoint, for example: “The proud tower of the imagination.”
There are also sendups of Shakespeare, as, for example, when Spot the dog is admonished, “Spot, Spot, out, damned Spot,” which comically references Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Macbeth.”
The play is not without bittersweet obervations that creatvity, whether for painter, songwriter or author, is a solitary pursuit and dedication to craft can require relinquishing time with family and friends.
For the writer, facing a blank page, the deadly deadline looms. “Where is my manuscript?” Shakespeare is asked. “Tomorrow and tomorrow” is the response, a spoof of Macbeth’s speech in “Macbeth.”
Alas, there’s the rub. As posited in “Shakespeare In Love,” the Bard was in love with love, but seems incapable of reciprocating in kind in real life. Rather, he recreated ardor with his words spoken by actors on the stage.
Ultimately, Shakespeare in love was Shakespeare alone.
Tickets: Labuda Center for the Performing Arts lobby box office, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley; pashakespeare.org/psf_tickets.php; 610-282-WILL (9455)