BWW Review: Seattle Shakes' SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE Lacks Both
During the curtain speech Seattle Shakespeare Company Artistic Director (and director of the night's show) George Mount and Managing Director John Bradshaw joked on how they don't often get to present a Washington premiere since they usually deal in 400-year-old plays. What they also don't usually contend with is the trend of turning every successful movie into a theatrical endeavor but here we are with the Seattle Shakespeare Company presenting the stage version of "Shakespeare in Love" based on the 1998 film. Now don't get me wrong, not all stage adaptations are awful and this one seems to be almost directly lifted from the wonderful Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard screenplay by the adapter Lee Hall so the script isn't entirely the problem here. No, the problems I have are threefold and amount to two very egregious things for a show entitled "Shakespeare in Love". There's not enough "Shakespeare" and not enough "Love". But let's start from the top.
If you've seen the film, and most have, you know the story. Acclaimed but struggling playwright William Shakespeare (Rafael Jordan) is trying to get his new piece, "Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter" to theater owner Mr. Henslowe (Bradford Farwell) in time except he's having trouble writing the thing. But then he meets the Lady Viola de Lesseps (Chiara Motley) whom he falls for and who sparks his creative fire. But Viola not only falls for Will the man but the playwright as she loves the theater. So much that she disguises herself as a man in order to audition for his play and, of course, blows them all away and gets the lead of Romeo. Will eventually finds out his new actor is actually Viola and they begin a torrid affair. But Viola is promised to marry the vile Lord Wessex (Brian Claudio Smith). Sounds like a Shakespeare play, doesn't it? Eventually "Romeo and Ethel" ceases to be a comedy and becomes the tragedy "Romeo and Juliet" but chaos ensues when Viola and Will are discovered in their affair and their deceptions.
I'll admit to a love of the film mostly due to the fact that the film showed a love for the subject matter. You could feel it throughout how much reverence they all had for this story (albeit fictional) they were telling due to its connections with the works of Shakespeare and that gave it heart. Which leads me to problem number one, a lack of love on the stage for the story. Director Mount seems to be more interested in getting to the next bit or gag than telling the tale. In fact, they tended to dwell on the bits and gags and the tale became a background piece and it should have been the other way around. Much of this could have had something to do with problem number two, the show just wasn't quite done baking yet. The scene changes were clunky as was the staging. No one seemed particularly settled into the world or listening to each other, they were just trying to get through it. Maybe it will settle in but that won't fix other problems.
Which brings me to problem number three and perhaps the worst of them all, the lack of Shakespeare. No, there was plenty of prose in the show, more in fact than is in the film. No, I'm referring to Jordan in the role of the bard himself who played him with the confidence and emotional depth of someone in the ensemble and not a leading player. Shakespeare is our focus and I had trouble remembering he was on stage. Furthermore, there is zero chemistry between him and Motley as Viola making the love story impossible. Motley gives it her all but gets nothing back making one wonder why she would fall for him.
Much of the rest of the ensemble have some wonderful moments. Keith Dahlgren as the money man Mr. Fennyman is hilarious as he goes from loan shark to "thespian". Tim Gouran brings in a sly playful nature to Kit Marlowe making him so much more than just a story point for the play. And Saxton Jay Walker brought the swagger and bravado needed for Ned, the leader of the players and owned the stage. In fact, with two powerhouses like Gouran and Walker at their disposal, my theater companion and I questioned why they wouldn't cast either of them as the bard considering they both brought the confidence in spades.
A show without heart and a love for the subject is deadly. A show without heart and a love for the subject with the word "Love" in the title is a crime. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of "Shakespeare in Love" an incredibly disappointed MEH-. I've heard from others who saw the show in Ashland that it can be a good one. So, it's definitely not the script.
"Shakespeare in Love" from Seattle Shakespeare Company performs at the Cornish Playhouse through June 3rd. For tickets or information contact the Seattle Shakespeare box office at 206-733-8222 or visit them online at www.seattleshakespeare.org.