Chicago Theatre Review
Shakespeare in Love – Shakespeare Theatre
Imagine if scholars suddenly discovered that the Bard had a muse who not only inspired him to write “Romeo and Juliet,” but became his love interest. And, to complicate matters even further, what if this muse was a lovely young lady named Viola, the daughter of a lord, Sir Robert de Lesseps. And just suppose Viola was also an avid fan of theatre who especially worshipped the works of William Shakespeare. And, despite it being forbidden, the girl dreamed of actually becoming an actor, herself.
That’s the intriguing premise behind this new play, which just happened to open at CST on Shakespeare’s birthday. It’s an original play, adapted by Lee Hall from the 1998 Oscar-winning screenplay for Best Picture, written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. The play originally premiered in London’s West End. At Navy Pier, the production is directed by Chicago’s own talented, award-winning director Rachel Rockwell (whose hit CST musical “Ride the Cyclone” recently took New York by storm). A lovely score has been composed and musically directed by Neil Bartram and some breathtaking fight choreography for this swashbuckling comic drama is courtesy of Matt Hawkins.
The production comes to glorious life upon Scott Davis’ revolving, two-storied turntable set. Sumptuously dressed in lavish velvet Elizabethan costumes by Susan E. Mickey, highlighted by Richard Jarvie’s wig and makeup designs, the show sparkles under Robert Wierzel’s effusive lighting.
As always, Bob Mason has cast this production with an eye for the finest talent available. In the title role, handsome, boyish New York actor Nick Rehberger makes a likable, enthusiastic Will Shakespeare, suffering from writer’s block, yet filled with charisma and charm. He makes a perfect period leading man. Kate McGonigle is lovely and spirited as Viola, the role played in the film by Gwyneth Paltrow. She blossoms with intelligence and is an Elizabethan champion of women’s lib. Not to be content with her mundane life of doing needlepoint and learning courtly dances, Viola burns with the drive to fulfill her own dreams. She’s not about to be pushed into anything, including a loveless marriage based on power and, the root of all evil, money.
Supporting roles are equally magnificent and each is as captivatingly portrayed as the next. The ever-surprising Larry Yando is hilarious as Philip Henslowe, the owner of the Rose Theatre, is always just a few steps away from the bill collectors. His frantic antics culminate in pronouncing everything as “It’s a mystery.” Michael Perez, so hilarious at Writers Theatre in “Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf,” is smooth, intelligent and amiable as Kit Marlowe, curiously both the Bard’s rival and his friend. Jerre Dye, always a treat in any production, is staunch and gruff, as Viola’s father, Sir Robert de Lesseps, but truly shines with comic brilliance as Edmund Tilney, the Queen’s Master of the Revels.
Ron E. Rains plays landlord Hugh Fennyman who blooms into an actor when Shakespeare writes him into his play as the apothecary. Sporting his blue cap, Rains is terrific, as usual. Linda Reiter, who moonlights in this production as Molly, the barmaid, is regal and playfully whimsical as Queen Elizabeth. As the first powerful woman in this man’s world, she wields the power to save the day in this comedy. Catherine Smitko is delightful as Viola’s Nurse, Timothy D. Stickney is blustery and full of himself as Richard Burbage, the proprietor of the competition theatre, the Curtain, and Nathaniel Braga is priceless as Sam, the troop’s diminutive young actor who plays the leading female roles. When the boy’s voice suddenly changes at the opening of “Romeo and Juliet,” almost forcing Shakespeare to cancel his play, we feel the young actor’s humiliation and pain. And, as Spot, the canine actor who steals every scene he’s in, Dash the rescue dog is perfection.
This romantic comedy is a welcome addition to Chicago Shakespeare’s season. It’s directed with sensitivity, yet an eye and ear for subtle comedy and Elizabethan accuracy, by the wonderful Rachel Rockwell. Her cast is immaculate and she tells this fictional story as if it actually happened. The hilarity arises from the situations, provided primarily by the supporting cast and ensemble, and the whole production is bathed in a beautiful, romantic score that makes this play with music the perfect choice for heralding Springtime in Chicago.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 23-June 11 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in their Courtyard Theater venue on Navy Pier.
Tickets are available in person at the CST box office, by calling them at 312-595-5600 or by going to www.chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com