BWW Review: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE Sizzles at SpeakEasy Stage Company

BWW Review: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE Sizzles at SpeakEasy Stage Company

Shakespeare in Love

Based on the Screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, Adapted for the Stage by Lee Hall, Directed by Scott Edmiston; Original Music/Music Direction/Sound Design by David Reiffel; Choreography/Period Movement by Judith Chaffee; Fight Direction by Ted Hewlett; Scenic Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Props Design, Abby Shenker; Dialect Coach, Amelia Broome; Production Stage Manager, Dawn Schall Saglio; Assistant Stage Manager, Dominique D. Burford

CAST (in alphabetical order): Remo Airaldi, Paul Alperin, Steve Auger, Ken Baltin, Nancy E. Carroll, Jennifer Ellis, Cameron Beaty Gosselin, Jade Guerra, Jesse Hinson, Jeff Marcus, George Olesky, Zaven Ovian, Omar Robinson, Edward Rubenacker, Carolyn Saxon, Eddie Shields, Damon Singletary, Lewis D. Wheeler, Leko the Dog

Performances through February 10 by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Wimberly Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or

Shakespeare in Love, based on the 1998 Academy Award-winning film, is many things. It is a play-within-a-play that goes backstage at The Rose, the Elizabethan theater where the Bard's plays were staged. It suggests the origin story of Romeo and Juliet and how it evolved from a very different theme. It humanizes William Shakespeare by showing that even he may have suffered from writer's block, only to be saved by the contributions of his friend Christopher Marlowe and the inspiration of his muse, Viola de Lesseps. Most importantly, the SpeakEasy Stage Company New England premiere production is a meaty, fast-paced comic romp with lots of sizzle to go with that steak.

Musical theater fans of Jennifer Ellis (Viola) will find her straight acting and subtle comedic skills on display, with just a tease of her crystalline soprano vocalizing. However, she is stretched in different directions by playing a noblewoman who disguises herself as a young boy to appear in a play, and by pairing up with a new leading man in town, Newton native George Olesky. Ellis and Olesky are a match made in heaven as his character converts his love and lust for her into the creative fuel for Shakespeare's romantic tragedy. From the moment they first set eyes on each other, Viola and Will embark on the bumpy road to love, dodging potholes that include her engagement to insufferable Lord Wessex (Lewis D. Wheeler), an empty suit hoping to fill his pockets by marrying the daughter of the wealthy Sir Robert de Lesseps (Damon Singletary), and the pesky matter of Shakespeare's marital status.

Shakespeare in Love mostly follows the storyline of the film (screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman), but Lee Hall's adaptation lessens the degree of emphasis on the romance between the two lovers and beefs up the focus on the creation and staging of Romeo and Juliet, with all of the backstage drama lending itself to the play's comic nature. There is lots of theater-related humor, including a pair of battling artistic directors well-played by Ken Baltin (world-weary Henslowe) and Omar Robinson (pompous Richard Burbage), the struggle to get financing from a penny-pinching moneyman (Remo Airaldi in his SpeakEasy debut), and putting up with a scenery-chewing prima donna (Jesse Hinson). Adding to the chaos, Shakespeare is writing pages on the fly, most of the troupe is inexperienced or untalented, and the young man playing Juliet chooses opening night for his voice to break. However, the show must go on, especially when Queen Elizabeth I (Nancy E. Carroll) is in the house.

There are more scene-stealers than can be counted, chief among them Carroll who, with her well-honed deadpan expression, appears totally at home on the royal throne spouting bits of royal wisdom. Eddie Shields (Marlowe) chalks up another strong performance on his resumé, this time combining a quick wit and dangerous devil may care attitude to contrast with Will's sensitive side. Carolyn Saxon is funny and warm as Viola's nurse and confidante. She also adds her sparkling voice to the choir in the musical interludes. Edward Rubenacker (Sam/Juliet) and Cameron Beaty Gosselin (Webster/Mandolin) seem to know in their bones that the best way to elicit the humor in drag is to play it straight. The former captures the innocence of his character, while the latter revels in the bad boy aspects of his. Rounding out the company are Paul Alperin (Cello), Steve Auger, Jade Guerra, Jeff Marcus (Lute), and Zaven Ovian (Musician).

Director Scott Edmiston deserves a lot of credit for managing the large cast (18) without sacrificing the individuality of any of the players. At any given moment, you can zero in on the face of an ensemble member and find him or her totally engaged and contributing to the impact of the scene. There are a vast number of scenes and transitions, all of which happen smoothly, but special mention should be made of those that feature dueling (Ted Hewlett, fight direction), one in which all of the actors are playing Keep Away with Will's manuscript, and anytime the dog (Leko) makes an appearance. The accomplished team of designers provides original music (David Reiffel) and choreography/period movement (Judith Chaffee) which are evocative of the Elizabethan era, a rustic tiered set (Jenna McFarland Lord), stylish costumes (Rachel Padula-Shufelt), effective and eclectic lighting changes (Karen Perlow), and props (Abby Shenker) befitting a queen and a rag tag theater company.

In an undertaking of this magnitude, the devil is surely in the details, but Edmiston must have brought in an exorcist during rehearsals to ward off any Satanic influences. Music Director/sound designer Reiffel brings out the best in his own compositions, thanks to a chorus of wonderful vocalists and musicians. The ensemble moves together like clockwork, whether partnering for a dance or a sword fight, and kudos to Dialect Coach Amelia Broome for making sure that the dialogue not only sounds authentic, but is spoken clearly, ensuring that we can appreciate the beauty of the Bard's language. Last, but not least, Edmiston brings forth the joy in his telling of the story, making the cold and dark of January feel ever so much warmer and brighter.

Photo credit: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots (Jennifer Ellis, George Olesky)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman

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