Shakespeare in Love


At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Courtyard)


  By Dan Zeff


Chicago—The first act of “Shakespeare in Love” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater floats along at a modest entertainment level. But the initial act is a placeholder for act two, one of the most exhilarating hours in the history of the CST.

          The play with music is an adaptation of a 1998 motion picture that won a bunch of Academy Awards, including one for the screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. The stage version prepared by Lee Hall apparently follows the film closely, though it’s a little longer as is usually the case with live performances.

          The narrative posits the idea that the young Will Shakespeare is experiencing a writing block in the late 1500’s in London. Intensifying the pressure are the  demands for a new play from a pair of desperate London producers. With the help of his playwriting colleague Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare is trying to write a comedy called ”Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter,” a title that is more Borscht Belt than Elizabethan.

                                                                               Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

       The first act meanders through Shakespeare’s writing block and his unexpected romance with Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and a feminist many generations before her time. Viola wants to act but the conventions of the Elizabethan stage forbade female actors.  So she disguises herself as a man named Timothy Kent and naturally wins a leading role, though the competition didn’t seem all that stringent.

Much of the play portrays the development in auditions and rehearsals of “Romeo and Juliet” as we know it. The dialogue is seasoned with quotations from Shakespeare’s plays, giving  the hipper-than-thou members of the audience repeated opportunities to laugh a little louder and quicker to display their credentials as Shakespearean insiders. This kind of quotation-dropping can be either clever or tiresome, depending on the viewer’s point of view. There is too much nudge nudge wink wink about a theater manager’s commenting of Shakespeare, “I think he has potential.” And it’s a little glib to cry “Out, out damned Spot” when a small dog named Spot makes its stage entrance at an awkward moment. But there is genuine cleverness in the insertion of lines like “”A hit! A palpable hit!” and “”O brave new world.”

The storyline is established in the first act and then explodes in the second act, with its mix of knockabout comedy, pathos, romance, high drama, and tragedy. There is exquisitely timed dashing about with much screaming that is farce at its most glorious. For these brilliantly frantic scenes web have director Rachel Rockwell to thank. She turns her actors loose in a tsunami of high-energy creativity. Where there could be lame shtick and pratfalls she concocts perpetual motion hilarity.

The stars of the evening are Nick Rehberger as Shakespeare and Kate McGonigle as Viola. McGonigle is an attractive actress who has a command of the language, both Stoppard and Shakespeare, but her character is a little bland. A fiestier Viola might have added more dramatic zest to the first act. That leaves Rehberger to do the dramatic heavy lifting and he is outstanding--passionate, insecure and vulnerable, and persuasively in love with Violet.

The production triumphs in its supporting characters. Larry Yando, who can do no wrong whether it’s tragedy or comedy, is delectable as theater manager Philip Henslowe. His wry wisecracks and asides had the audience hooting with laughter. Nobody sells a comic line like Yando. A commonplace comment like “That will have them rolling in the aisles” stopped the show. Linda Reiter has only a couple of scenes as Queen Elizabeth I but her authority and dry humor give the show real spark.  Michael Perez, a local actor previously unknown to me, is a stalwart Christopher Marlowe, in the play a young man who actually radiates more talent than Shakespeare. In real life Marlowe died in 1593 at the age of 29 under mysterious circumstances in a tavern brawl.

The honor role of supporting performances continues with Ron Rains as a nasty censor, Timothy Stickney as the eminent and pompous English leading man Richard Burbage,  Dennis Grimes as Viola’s brutal aristocratic suitor, Jerre Dye as her father, and Spot the dog, who is irresistible as all small dogs are in a play.

                                          Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

The Elizabethan configuration of the Courtyard Theater lends local color and authenticity to the show. The play is not only about Will and Violet, it’s an entertaining and informative glimpse of English theater as it entered its golden age, with its rehearsals, political infighting between actors and management, and its struggle for economic survival as a craft held in very low esteem by much of English at the time. The CST thrust stage with its massive capability for vertical as well as horizontal action enabled scenic designer Scott Davis to create a credible entry into Shakespeare’s stage world with the assistance of the theater’s elevator and turntable and trapdoors. Susan E. Mickey has designed a colorful wardrobe of period costumes. And props to Robert Wierzel for his lighting design, Ray Nardelli for his sound, and Richard Jarvie for his wig and makeup designs, and an extra hurrah for Matt Hawkins’s stunning fight choreography. Neil Bartram is the music director and composed the atmospheric music.

“Shakespeare in Love” is a more commercial production that we usually see at the CST.  The original London production was co-produced by Disney Theatrical Productions. But any show involving Tom Stoppard is likely to be stimulating and articulate and adult in the best sense of the word (the current Court Theatre presentation of Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem” is dense to the point of impenetrability). The Shakespeare play is basically a fun romance, highly theatrical, and especially well cast in the smaller roles. The physical production is impressive, and that final act will knock the audience for a joyous loop.

        The show gets a rating of 3½   stars  

     “Shakespeare in Love” runs through June 11 at the Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. Most performances are Wednesday 1 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $58 to $88. Call 312 595 5600 or visit     April 2017


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