The turn of the 21st Century brought, among other things, a proliferation of stage adaptations from film, and the trend has continued, to varying degrees of success. “Shakespeare In Love,” the 2014 adaptation based on the Oscar-winning 1998 romantic comedy, is one of the rare examples of a movie-turned-play that actually works better on stage, and the current production directed by Cameron Knight at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre glorifies its many successes with a brilliant cast so good, they’re not even upstaged by their gorgeous period costumes and impressive set.
Written by Declan Donnellan, Lee Hall, Marc Norman, and Tom Stoppard, the story opens with none other than William Shakespeare stumped by writer’s block. An amusingly fay Kit Marlowe comes to the rescue, feeding Will not only words for the love sonnet that is giving him fits, but ultimately mentors him through creating the overdue, unwritten, and oversold (to two theaters) comedy “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.”
An attractive young man auditions for the part of Romeo but turns out to be the stagestruck daughter of a wealthy merchant — and Will’s muse. They fall in love despite her being married off to the villainous Lord Wessex who wants her for her dowry. Hence, Will’s play is transformed from comedy into its destined tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet.”
It is more fan fiction for lovers of The Bard than a historically accurate account, and unapologetically so. With a set by Sarah Pearline that looks very much like the original Globe Theatre, and beautifully ornate costumes in layers of leather, lace, and velvet by T. Stacy Hicks, as well as exciting fight scenes with choreography from Alexis Black, it hits many of the right period notes; yet it also includes anachronistic music arranged in Elizabethan style between scenes (Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and The Band’s “The Weight” among others) as well as plenty of amusing references to famous Shakespeare lines out of context — “Out, damn spot!” as an utterance toward a stage dog in an Elizabethan collar rather than one from a sleepwalking Lady MacBeth, for example — that makes for a fun juxtaposition.
But most of all what makes this production fun is what the actors accomplish with the story, the characters, and each other. HSRT Artistic Director Lenny Banovez is a marvelous Will, at turns lost and bold, athletic and demure, comical and tragic. His facial expressions are as nuanced as his physical gestures are, at times, grand. He has terrific chemistry with Meg Rodgers as his muse Viola de Lesseps, and her artistry matches his every step of the way.
Ben Lohrberg’s Kit Marlowe is also tremendous, mastering this true genius, and making him one of the most genuinely amusing comedic characters on stage, with a twirl of his hair and a look in his eye. Angela Iannone’s brilliant high, nasal voice as Viola’s Nurse; Jasmine Bracey’s truly regal presence as Queen Elizabeth; Christian Klepac’s larger-than-life Ned Alleyn; Jonathan Smoots’ anxious Henslowe; and Chip Duford’s demanding yet humble Fennyman are but a smattering of the across-the-board excellent character work on stage in this huge cast—all of whom manage seemingly effortless variations of convincing British accents.
At one point, when Viola realizes she has inspired Will’s Sonnet 18, she declares “I am made immortal.” It is not only she, and not only Shakespeare, but the power of love itself that is immortalized in this play — miraculously, unsentimentally so, and with plenty of laughs. And as Director Cameron Knight suggests in his program notes, “What a wonderful time for a love story.”
Shakespeare In Love
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
July 19-Aug. 6