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For centuries, theatergoers and scholars have mulled over the question of how William Shakespeare became the magisterial genius he was, how as a poet and playwright he came to know so much, write with such a honeyed tongue, and move so many so deeply. In 1998, screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard tackled that question with Shakespeare in Love, taking a new approach and attitude. Discarding the usual methods of textual study and meticulous historical investigation, Norman and Stoppard wove a new fabric, some of it out of whole cloth and some of it stitched together from familiar scraps of information and familiar quotes. Two operative principles preside over their work, normalizing Shakespeare as a writer. You will certainly come away from playwright Lee Hall's stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, currently at Halton Theater in a handsome Central Piedmont Theatre production, with the notion that the Bard of Avon wrote about what he personally experienced and that he was a magnificent and insatiable sponge, absorbing everything that was said to him and sublimating it into magnificent verse and poetry. In the words of Henry James, repeatedly intoned in graduate level writing programs across America, Shakespeare was "one upon whom nothing is lost."
You can also choose to be outraged by the shambles Norman and Stoppard make of actual history, beginning with the notion that the story of Romeo and Juliet is a Shakespeare original. Even undergrad lit majors know better. But you'll likely be won over by the fun-filled attitude of Norman and Stoppard as they put together a story with sufficient romance, theatre and court intrigue, comedy, and tragedy to inspire not only Romeo and Juliet but also armloads of Shakespearean treasure afterwards. With Stoppard on the team, a genuine theatre insider, there's a theatre-making perspective that adds to the excitement of the multiple plots that keep us scrambling to follow the action. Under the direction of Tom Hollis, the energy and ennthusiasm of this teeming yarn were quite contagious for its Saturday evening audience.
Before Will meets Viola De Lesseps, who will inspire the playwright to change his frivolous "Romeo and Ethel" comedy into the tragedy we all know – and serve as model for the heroine of Twelfth Night– a hectic stew of rivalry, antagonism, and desperation is boiling around him. Assailed by writer's block, Will is already past the time when he promised to finish new scripts for Philip Henslowe's Rose Theatre and Richard Burbage's Curtain Theatre. Henslowe's need is particularly acute because he owes money to Fennyman, a shark who employs henchmen and torture to ratchet up his coercion. Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, Shakespeare's greatest contemporary, is a friend here, helping Will toward shaping the plot of Romeoand feeding him lines for his most famous sonnet.
All of this desperation and street fighting are a perfect backdrop for the luminescence of Viola. A beautiful noblewoman smitten by the theatre and Shakespeare's verse, she disguises herself as Thomas Kent in order to audition for the role of Romeo, performing a speech from the Bard's first hit, Two Gentlemen of Verona, as a sampling. (Audience members who don't know that women were forbidden to act on stage during the Elizabethan Era will be deftly brought up to speed.) Until Viola shows up, Will hasn't seen much to encourage him that he'll be able to cast "Romeo and Ethel," if he ever finishes writing it. When Kent flees the audition after flubbing some kissing business, Will pursues, only to come face-to-face with Viola. So now it's Will's turn to be flustered.
Once Viola is on the scene, romance enters to dispel Will's writer's block and the world of Shakespeare in Lovewidens to include nobility, government, and royalty. Lord Essex, aspiring to Viola's hand and fortune, is Will's chief romantic obstacle, having obtained daddy's permission – and Queen Elizabeth herself will also need to approve. If Viola does achieve her ambition and appear publicly on stage, the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, stands in the wings, empowered to instantly stop the performance and shut down the theater.
Jennifer O'Kelly's set design, with its Globe Theatre arches and balcony, emphatically reinforces the notion that the action we're watching in Will's life is the stuff of Shakespearean drama. Pre-recorded music composed by Paddy Cunneen, infused with the sounds of flutes and lutes, helps in the transitions from theaters and taverns to noble and palatial surroundings. With plenty of input from companies and theatre departments as far away as Greensboro, costume designer Emily McCurdy splendidly outfits a cast of 23 playing 60 different roles – though it might be pointed out that the Queen of England should have more than one dress. Choreography by Clay Daniels, when we reach the iconic Romeo ballroom scenes in real life and in rehearsal, meshes with the music simply and authentically.
Best of all, the key roles were aptly cast. Morgan Wakefield had an abundance of breathless energy and theatre enthusiasm that never seemed nerdy and – since she was the inspiration for Juliet as well as Viola – a total lack of vanity staining her beauty. While Wakefield's energy largely fueled the pulsing effervescence of this performance, Jack Stanford was no less on point as Shakespeare. He walked a similar tightrope between pragmatic calculation and youthful impulse that Wakefield trod, never becoming too cerebral. As lines from Shakespeare's future works showered him from all directions throughout the evening, I always sensed from Stanford that Will was absorbing rather than stealing them.
The nobles all sounded very polished, beginning with Jonathan Stephens as the pushy, valorous, and conceited Essex and Pat Heiss as the sternly regal Queen Elizabeth – with a broad vein of worldliness. Jim Greenwood as Tilney was exactly the kind of prig you would want to cram into a trapdoor, costumed puritanically to make it obvious that he inspired Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Anne Lambert bustled about officiously enough as Viola's Nurse to make it obvious that Juliet should have one, too. Out in the London jungle where the Rose Theatre struggled for survival, inexperience only occasionally peeped out among the players. Jeff Powell infused Fennyman with menace, convincingly shifting his attitude once the moneylender became stage-struck, and while Larry Wu could be downright bizarre as the tortured Henslowe, his intensity was endearing. A little more confidence and individuality would help Blake Williams in his portrayal of Kit Marlowe, but there was abundant stage presence from Bryce Mac as Ned Allyn, the star actor who took on the role of Mercutio, and from Brian Holloway as the predatory, opportunistic Burbage.
Chemistry between Stanford and Wakefield in the Will/Viola romance will sufficiently captivate groundlings new to the world of Shakespeare. But the more you've experienced of the Bard, the more you will be delighted by the quotes from Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Lear that also creep in. Where the intended allusions and echoes ended and where unintended parallels began was sometimes hard to discern. When Elizabeth told Viola that even she could not dissolve an ordained marriage, was this a foreshadowing of what Theseus had to tell Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream? While Romeo and Juliet was virtually writing itself before my eyes, it was reassuring to recall that genuine monarchs can understand the limits of their power.
Shakespeare in Love continues through Sunday, October 6. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.