BWW Review: Helter-Skelter, Seat-of-the-Pants Hilarity: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE at Center Stage
I'm not sure whether "the anxiety of influence" of which critic Harold Bloom writes really inhibits poets. (This, per Mr. Bloom, is the anxiety poets feel about their ability to craft something new in the face of work by their predecessors.) But I'm quite certain it doesn't apply to playwrights. Shakespeare in Love, now gracing the boards at Center Stage, is as good an illustration as any. William Shakespeare, as we know, has more influence to this day than any other playwright; his phrases and his vocabulary permeate conversation and writing throughout English-speaking lands, and his tales and characters are such archetypes we can generally refer to them without explanation. He is Mr. Influence. But does that surfeit of influence occasion the slightest anxiety on the part of Tom Stoppard? To that we may safely cry "Nonsense!"
This play, an adaptation by Lee Hall from a 1998 screenplay by Stoppard (also author of another Shakespeare takeoff, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) and by Marc Norman, is clearly the product of three dramatists who see Shakespeare's example and his plenitude as nothing more terrifying than an occasion for going on a lark. Shakespeare's language and dramaturgy are everywhere in the show, which ostensibly focuses on events of 1593, the year of Romeo and Juliet. The references may be sly ("Wardrobe mistress, quickly!") or derisive (Will: "Give me to drink mandragora!" Barman: "Straight up?") or drawn-out and direct (the process by which a misconceived comedy named Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate King's Daughter morphs into a much beloved tragedy of young love). But they are constant. The creators of this entertainment are glad to have Shakespeare always in the room with them, and glad to point him out. There is no anxiety and no fear about it - just high spirits.
The central conceit is that as of this early date in his career, Shakespeare (Nicholas Carriere) is really not all that good or confident a poet or playwright, and requires promptings and suggestions with both sonnets and his Romeo play from Christopher Marlowe (Avery Glymph), who is the real deal. Marlowe even has to provide in-person real-time assistance to Shakespeare with the latter's wooing of a theater-struck young woman, Viola de Lesseps (Emily Trask), in a balcony scene that just happens to contain much language that will powerfully remind the audience of a balcony scene in another play. And, like so many Shakespeare heroines, including one named Viola, this Viola will don male garb in pursuit of her objectives, both of the thespian and the romantic nature. In other words, the events of Shakespeare in Love are outrageously depicted as inspirations for things that turn up in Shakespeare's plays, rather than (as the audience knows full well is actually the case) the other way around. (Just as, in Back to the Future, Marty McFly's rendition of Johnny B. Goode supposedly inspires Chuck Berry to copy the song.)
The result is ridiculous fun. The sly references to the actual plays and sonnets waft by, the incidents of supposed inspiration pelt the playwright to his often apparently oblivious response, and slapstick, mingled with topical and romantic comedy, is laid on with a trowel. It may be slightly nerdy for the audience to know much about who was who in the world of the late Elizabethan stage, but who won't chortle as impresario Philip Henslowe (Barzin Akhavan) is threatened with having his feet roasted for nonpayment of a debt to a thuggish but also theater-struck usurer named Fennyman (John Plumpis)? Who won't enjoy the contemporary feminist overlay when Queen Elizabeth (Naomi Jackson) discusses non-traditional (from a 16th-century perspective) casting - of a woman in a woman's role, no less - and extolling the benefits of sending a woman to do what's usually regarded as a man's job? And who can be insensitive to the charms of a romance that, like Romeo and Juliet's, grows up between two people we know cannot end up together (in this case an already-married Shakespeare and a wealthy young woman pledged to a nobleman under royal command) - in other words a romance condemned to Roman Holiday brevity but also Roman Holiday charm and brilliance - the more so because Shakespeare is a far more interesting lover than Gregory Peck's stolid news reporter?
And most of all, perhaps, is the sense of the theater as a helter-skelter, seat-of-the-pants, totally precarious enterprise, in which people start out to cast or produce a show with no idea how it's going to be completed, without necessarily even a script, and in which the way to make the final product viable, let alone successful, is, as the script keeps saying, "a mystery." As Shakespeare and his ever-varying collaborators teeter on the edge of disaster, in large part owing to Shakespeare's dissolute ways, the play manages to charm and alarm at the same time.
The show comes with an interesting pedigree. Disney Theatrical Productions owned the rights, and reportedly was considering making a musical of the movie, but decided to commission a play instead. There was a 2014 West End production, but never one on Broadway; instead the show's North American premiere was at the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival in 2016. Evidently it was a big enough hit there that it has grown into the most-produced play in America's regional theater this season. This particular production first appeared in September at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park, which co-produced it with Center Stage, and it is directed by Blake Robison, Artistic Director of the Cincinnati company.
The popularity of such a charming confection is easy to understand, but the ubiquity of the play is a bit more surprising. For all its delights, Shakespeare in Love is a heavy lift. With a large cast (21, including a chihuahua, at Center Stage, with plenty of doubling), a heavy demand for costumes, some really extensive swordplay involving many cast members (here courtesy of two outstanding fight directors, the evocatively-named Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet), and a need for a big set (this one highly reminiscent of the Globe Theater, designed by Tim Mackabee), this is not a play a company can phone in or undertake without lining up financing. It's understandable that Center Stage would wish to co-produce, and share the expense.
But of course, when you have a theatrical property that is basically a delight delivery vehicle, why not? So perhaps the ubiquity is not such a shock. In any event, this production, which handles all the heavy lifting gracefully (Carriere and Trask are charming star-crossed lovers, the comedic timing is perfect, the swordplay looks dangerous, and the dog is well-behaved).
Since, for all its national popularity, Shakespeare in Love will only appear locally at Center Stage for the time being, you'll have to see it there - and why go anywhere else, anyway?
Shakespeare in Love, adapted by Lee Hall from a screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, directed by Blake Robison, through November 26, at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $20-$79, at www.centerstage.org or 410.332.0033. Adult situations, mild violence.d
Photo credit: Richard Anderson.