Will the real William Shakespeare please stand up?

Speculation about the man who would become the playwright and poet universally considered the greatest writer in the English language (and who, in many ways, helped create that language) has run rampant for centuries. Was he simply a so-so actor who served as the front man for an aristocrat in Queen Elizabeth’s court who preferred to remain anonymous? Was he a spy working to undermine the Catholics who were so disdained by the Protestants in power in the kingdom? Why is there so little official record of the man? What about his questionable sexual orientation? And if Shakespeare did, in fact, produce the work on which his name appears, how can anyone account for its genius given that he lacked any “higher education”?

These are some of the familiar questions David Blixt, a Chicago-based author, actor and director, attempted to answer in his cleverly titled 2012 novel, “Her Majesty’s Will,” now in its world premiere Lifeline Theatre production adapted for the stage by Robert Kauzlaric and energetically directed by Chris Hainsworth.

‘HER MAJESTY’S WILL’
Somewhat recommended
When: Through July 16
Where: Lifeline Theatre,
6912 N. Glenwood
Tickets: $40
Info:
(773) 761-4477;
http://www.lifelinetheatre.com
Run time:
2 hours
and 15 minutes with one intermission

Heather Chrisler plays Lady Helena of Snakenborg ,and Javier Ferreira plays William Shakespeare in the Lifeline Theatre production of “Her Majesty’s Will.” (Photo: Cole Simon)

When we first meet William Shakespeare (Javier Ferreira), he is a young man with the assumed name of William Falstaff. And he is more or less hiding out in the northern English county of Lancashire, where he teaches in a boys school, and where his students have little interest in his efforts to infuse them with his own love of Greek drama.

One day, purely by happenstance, he sees a woman being brutalized by two men on the street and boldly intervenes to rescue her. The “her” turns out to be Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (Bryan Bosque), the shrewd, impulsive, university-educated Elizabethan tragedian who would have a great influence on Will. Kit’s disguise is part of his cover as a spy; he is working for Queen Elizabeth’s government, which is hellbent on keeping Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, off the throne. He also happens to be “out” and gay, and this, combined with his espionage activities, makes him, of necessity, quite a quick-thinking “actor.”

Shakespeare — who has some Catholic relatives, as well as a very difficult father who drove his family to financial ruin in Stratford — is a wanted man and has been trying to keep a low profile. But his brief complicity with Marlowe makes him a marked man once again. And the two language-obsessed men, who have quickly become good friends (and more), go on the run together, finally ending up in the great metropolis of arts and squalor that is London — a place Shakespeare has never before seen.

At stake in their escapades is nothing less than the attempt to foil a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. And the play suggests that in addition to his natural flair for language (as well as an ear for Marlowe’s best lines) the time Shakespeare spent with Marlowe (sometimes referred to as his “lost years,” as there is no record of them), not only gave him story lines aplenty, but honed his acting (and swordplay) skills. The endless series of crazy escapes, dangerous intrigues and time spent at important pubs all fed the plays he would soon write.

The show unspools in something of an action-adventure comic book style not unlike that in the recent overly farcical stage adaptation of “Shakespeare in Love” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. And while it might serve as a perfect field trip outing for middle school and high school kids who have been force-fed too much of the Bard of Avon (but who might easily recognize some famous lines and characters), much of it is just too sophomoric for an adult audience.

The actors work like the devil, however, particularly the tirelessly athletic Ferreira, who suggests his character’s somewhat guileless but sponge-like nature, as well as his easily bisexual nature. (Will only briefly mentions the wife and children he left behind in Stratford.) Bosque, too, is a tireless performer, suggesting both Marlowe’s braininess and flamboyance.

The immensely skillful and morphable Heather Chrisler is the only woman in the nine-person cast, and with her superb diction and fleet physicality she morphs easily from narrator, to barmaid, to the most elegant and worldly Lady Helena, Queen Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting. There also are zesty turns by Don Bender (as the Queen’s spymaster), with Peter Greenberg, Martel Manning, Dan Cobbler, LaQuin Groves and Mike Ooi, playing everything from street toughs and priests to rebels and “theater folk.”

Eleanor Kahn’s set — a wonderful wooden box-on-wheels that serves countless purposes, and makes fine use of Lifeline’s brick-walled space — is a model of adaptable minimalism, expertly lit by Diane D. Fairchild. Aly Renee Amidei’s costumes come with winningly artful suggestions of period and contemporary styles. Jeffrey Levin’s original music and sound design are first-rate. And Blixt himself designed the violence for the production.

The world’s many Shakespeare “doubters” might not have their doubts about the playwright fully allayed by “Her Majesty’s Will.” But the show certainly gives the Shakespeare “believers” a good story to tell.