PCPA has played host to many Shakespeare plays over the years, but this time the play is about Shakespeare himself ... sort of.
“Shakespeare in Love” started out as a screenplay by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard. Stoppard has been associated with Shakespeare ever since he wrote “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” an absurdist satire of “Hamlet.” His play “Arcadia” was performed at PCPA earlier this season.
There is no pretense that “Shakespeare in Love” is a true-to-life historical drama about the life of William Shakespeare. The authors took whatever parts of The Bard's life and work struck their fancy, and used them to concoct a fictional romantic-comedy narrative.
William Shakespeare -- here generally called “Will” -- is a struggling young playwright. He's long past the deadline for his latest comedy, “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter,” and he hasn't written a word. Things change when he falls in love, and “Romeo and Ethel” transforms into the more familiar tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” This may not be the true backstory of that particular play, but many classics have been born out of chaos and saved at the last minute.
Released in 1998, the film was a box-office and critical hit and went on to win seven Oscars, including best picture.
It's fitting that a film so centered on live theater would find its way to the stage The stage version premiered in London's West End in 2014. This adaptation was written by Lee Hall, but Stoppard's wit and knowledge of the theater world carry over from the film. One notable change: Gone are Will's infatuation with a woman named Rosaline, and the draft of his play she inspired, “Romeo and Rosaline.” Possibly this was to make Will into a more likable romantic lead, but it might have been nice to have that middle step between “Ethel” and “Juliet.”
In PCPA's production, the stage is dominated by a wooden structure, resembling a scaled-down version of a Renaissance “playhouse.” The backdrop is the London skyline, as it might appear in an illustration from the period. (Set design by Abby Hogan.)
As the play opens, a quill floats down, as if from heaven above. Will, played by Yusef Seevers, grasps it, as the ensemble eagerly awaits his words. Unfortunately for the young Bard, they don't come easily.
It's fun to see the celebrated playwright as a young man with an uncertain future, flying by the seat of his pantaloons. Through Seevers, we see how art is informed by the passions and experiences of a living, breathing human being.
George Walker plays Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, Shakespeare's friend, rival and mentor. Walker's been-there, done-that nonchalance makes him a good foil to Seevers' youthful earnestness. The plot to “Romeo and Juliet” is presented as something Kit casually suggests to Will off the top of his head. (Probably a joke on the theory that Marlowe was the actual author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare.)
Peter S. Hadres is charming as ever as Henslowe, owner of The Rose Theatre. He just wants a play with pirates, a dog and a happy ending. His philosophy on backstage turmoil is that things always work out in the end.
“It's a mystery!” he explains.
The cash-strapped Henslowe employs a troupe of misfits, each with their own comic quirk. Parker Harris swaggers in as the resident star Ned Alleyn.
The authors slip in a few jokes about the egos of actors. When trying to woo Ned for the role of Mercutio, Will tells him the title of the play is “Mercutio.” When Ned asks who Romeo is, he replies, “He's nobody. Mercutio's friend.”
Don Stewart has some of the most infectious glee as Fennyman, a stern creditor who gets bitten by the theater bug. Also, he looks good in a little red hat. (This makes more sense if you see the show.)
“Romeo and Juliet” is one of the most well-known plays of all time, but “Shakespeare in Love” invites us to imagine what it was like to see it when it was brand new. (Even though, in real life, the play was adapted from an existing story.)
Helping to us get into that mindset is Emily Trask as Viola de Lesseps, who practically swoons every time she hears Shakespeare's words. Her father (Brad Carroll), a wealthy merchant, has promised her hand in marriage to Lord Wessex (Andrew Philpot) -- but her heart belongs to the theater. Trouble is, it's illegal for women to appear onstage -- female roles are played by boys in drag. So Viola sneaks out disguised as a man, and lands the role of Romeo. Viola's nurse (Kitty Balay) covers for her by claiming she's so devout, she spends four hours in prayer each day.
Viola is reminiscent of other “ahead of her time” heroines in period pieces, designed for modern audiences to find relatable. However, as played by Trask, she's a lively and inspiring character.
Balay brings her terrific comic timing to the role of the nurse. Andrew Philpot, meanwhile, inverts his usual good-natured charm to play the thoroughly odious Lord Wessex.
Disguising herself as “Thomas Kent,” Viola auditions for the role of Romeo with a monologue from Shakespeare's “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Seevers captures the giddiness of a young playwright hearing someone else recite his work.
Will eventually discovers her identity, and the two begin a forbidden affair. You can't have “Shakespeare in Love” without Shakespeare in love, and fortunately, the two leads have good chemistry together. Keeping that love hidden naturally leads to some Shakespearean shenanigans.
Things turn even more farcical when rival theater owner Burbage (Erik Stein) storms The Rose Theatre, demanding a play that Will has promised him. The Master of the Revels (Brian Bohlender) also barges in, seeking to shut down the production -- and, if he has his way, all theater in London! Stein later gives a brief, but stirring speech in defense of the theatrical profession.
Polly Firestone Walker rules the stage during her appearances as Queen Elizabeth I. But nobody steals the show like Peggy Baldiviez, in the role of Spot, a canine actor who amuses the queen.
The ensemble occasionally forms a musical chorus, which adds a great deal to the Renaissance atmosphere. (Music direction by Ilana Atkins.)
Sara Curran Ice's costumes are a delight as well -- floppy caps, puffy sleeves, sumptuous gowns; everything you'd expect from the period.
Director Roger DeLaurier has crafted an energetic, fast-paced comedy. Besides laughs, there's also room for romance, action and even a bit of sorrow. It's a thoroughly entertaining evening at the theater.