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BWW Review: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE A Love Letter to Theatre

BWW Review: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE A Love Letter to Theatre

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is a 2014 stage adaptation by Lee Hall of the 1998 Academy Award winning film by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard of the same name. It was first created under the auspices of Disney Theatrical Productions and Sonia Friedman Productions. The story concerns an imaginary love affair involving Viola de Lesseps (Claire Grasso) and playwright William Shakespeare (Stephen Mercantel) while he was writing Romeo and Juliet. Many of the characters are based on historical figures, and many of the characters, lines, and plot devices allude to Shakespeare's plays. The production, now playing at Austin Playhouse, is one of their biggest productions to date. This script has become one of the most produced plays in America this season, and rightfully so, as it is as entertaining as the film was.

In case you don't remember, the plot of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is the tale of Shakespeare's attempts to write a successful play. Young Will is suffering from a severe case of writer's block as the deadline fast approaches for his new play. The play is a half-baked mess called "Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter". To complicate matters, the play in question has been promised to two different theaters. Enter Viola de Lesseps, a young noblewoman (who in that era would be called " headstrong") and Will's greatest admirer, who will stop at nothing to be in his next play. Unfortunately, this was an era when women were not allowed on stage. She becomes not only his muse but the two fall in love. Both become despondent when they learn that Viola's father has promised her to the stuffy Lord Wessex (Brian Coughlin) in order to gain a title for their family. In keeping with the tone of a lot of the Bard's works: gender-swapping, misunderstandings, and hilarity ensue...and along the way, the play evolves into the classic Romeo and Juliet.

Director Don Toner, and his assistant director Lara Toner Haddock, start the production by having actors stroll onto the stage as Shakespeare attempts to deal with his case of writers block, like unformed characters waiting to be written, gathered around the playwright. The staging works like a charm with the cast handling the scene changes quickly against the backdrop of what structurally resembles The Globe, a smartly designed set by Mike Toner. Buffy Manners and Diana Huckaby's costumes are gloriously rich and evoke the time perfectly. Mark Novick's lighting design keeps the action mostly well lit on multiple levels with occasional problems on the top level. Sarah Fleming Walker handles the music direction which is mostly quite good, but on opening weekend, it seemed the performers at times had trouble hearing the music which resulted in them tending to go sharp or flat more than once; however, I am sure that problem will work itself out in short order. Toby Minor's skills as a fight choreographer show themselves during some very skillful sword fights.

Leading this twenty member ensemble are the skillful performances of Stephen Mercantel as Shakespeare and Claire Grasso as Viola de Lesseps. They have a nice chemistry together and both have the comedic timing the piece requires. Mercantel also impersonates a female servant to hilarious comedic effect and carries the considerable weight of the play on his shoulders with ease. The entire company is solid, with some excellent performances worthy of mention: Brian Coughlin as the pompous Lord Wessex, Mary Cox who delivers a memorable Queen Elizabeth, Huck Huckaby as Fennyman, Bernadette Nason as the Nurse, Jason Newman as a smooth and sauve Marlowe, J Ben Wolfe as the ego known as Ned Alleyn, Scott Shipman as Henslowe, and Craig Kanne as the stuttering Frees.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is, first and foremost, a love letter to the theater that contains delightful behind-the-scenes glimpses into theater life in Elizabethan times. The script contains not only a host of allusions to famous Shakespeare lines, but also a sub-plot that toys with the theory that Shakespeare may not have been the sole author of his legendary body of work. Austin Playhouse's production of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE has something to please both Shakespeare fans and those theatergoers who wouldn't pick the Bard as their first choice. And, with all the romance in the piece, it's not a bad date-night choice, either.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, adapted by Lee Hall. Music by Paddy Cunneen.
Running Time: Two Hours and Twenty Minutes, including intermission.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, produced by Austin Playhouse (6001 Airport Boulevard, Austin, TX, 78752) located on ACC's Highland Campus.

Thursdays-Sundays, March 23 - April 22, 2018 at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m.
Tickets range from $20 - $44
BOX OFFICE: Call 512.476.0084 or email
DISCOUNTS: All student tickets are half-price. $3 discount for Seniors 65 and up. Group rates available.
For more information:

Art Exhibition at Austin Playhouse:
Through April 22nd, there is also an artist exhibition called "Tomfoolery" with 20 pieces displayed and for sale by Mary K. Morse, Dar Richardson, Marla Ripperda and Bob Coffee. These sculptors are giving 20% of all sales during this exhibition to Austin Playhouse.

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From This Author Frank Benge