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BWW Review: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE at the Stratford Festival is Full of Heart

The North American premiere of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE opened on Saturday night at the Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre. This feel-good production is full of hilarious characters, stunning costumes, and clever references to the works of William Shakespeare. Most of all, though, it is full of heart.

Based on the Academy Award winning movie, and screenplay (by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard), this stage adaptation is written by Lee Hall and directed by Declan Donnellan. It is set in London in 1593 and tells the story of playwright Will Shakespeare (you may have heard of him), who is trying to overcome writer's block and write his next play, when he meets and falls for Viola de Lesseps-a wealthy merchant's daughter, who loves the theatre and decides to dress as a man in order to get a part in one of Shakespeare's plays. As Will, Luke Humphrey is a charming leading man. He exudes a youthful charisma, whilst also portraying the true passion that Will has both for his work, and for Viola. As Viola, Shannon Taylor lights up the stage. Her passion and energy are contagious as she portrays the underlying strength and wit of a character that chooses to break free of the confines created by society. The chemistry between Humphrey and Taylor is undeniable and their budding romance is a delight to watch. As part of the play within the play, the two act out famous scenes from ROMEO AND JULIET. After seeing those performances, this writer would be quite interested in seeing these two do ROMEO AND JULIET for real!

Part of what makes this production so magical is the fantastic company that has been assembled. Tom McCamus is hilarious as Fennyman the financier for the play who, maybe has just a little bit of a desire to be an actor; Steve Ross and Stephen Ouimette also get lots of laughs as theatre owners, Burbage and Henslowe; and Rylan Wilkie is fun to root against as Wessex, the man who Viola is supposed to marry. Sarah Orenstein is perfect as Queen Elizabeth; and Andrew Robinson has the entire audience rooting for him in his portrayal of Wabash-a tailor with a passion for the theatre, who might just get his chance if he can overcome his stutter.

Some newcomers to the Festival also leave quite the impression on this production. Both Thomas Mitchell Barnet and Tal Shulman are fantastic as young men auditioning for women's parts. As a side note, Shulman's hilarious character turns out to also be someone audiences may be familiar with. Saamer Usmani is dashing as Will's trusted friend, Kit Marlowe.

Another newcomer, who simply must be mentioned, is Cole the dog, who portrays 'Spot'. A character in the play comments that the audience loves a dog-they are absolutely right!

In addition to a top-notch company-who are clearly as in love with the theatre as the characters they portray, this production is made great by the functional and beautiful design by Nick Ormerod. A wooden two tier balcony transports the audience to various locations throughout the play. It also moves forwards and backwards to easily transition a scene from center-stage to back stage. The music by composer Paddy Cunneen does the job of letting the audience know exactly what time period they are in. It also beautifully sets the tone for each scene.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE may not be as complex as some other productions at the Stratford Festival this season, but for what it is, it is exceedingly enjoyable-and for the record, this writer believes that 'what it is' is exactly the sort of love story that this season at the Festival needs. It is a great show for audience members of all ages and interests to come see while they are visiting town. There is something in this for everyone to enjoy!

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE continues in Repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 16th.

Photo Credit: David Hou

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