In one of the finer moments in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s heavily farcical production of “Shakespeare in Love” — the stage adaptation by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) of the much-loved, Academy Award-winning 1998 film about a fictional love affair between William Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps, a young woman with a passion for acting that cannot be realized because women were at the time barred from the stage — Queen Elizabeth I (a terrific turn by Linda Reiter) arrives in all her glory, with characteristic white face makeup and grandiose wig. And in the drollest and most ironic of tones she proceeds to deliver this little pearl: “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession.”
‘SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE’
When: Through June 11
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Tickets: $48 – $88
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
There, in a nutshell, is the very essence of the story. And coming as it does, after far too much “Spamalot”-like goofiness, overextended riffs about Shakespeare’s writers’ block, bouts of sexual jealousy and confusion, an unwanted marriage of pure opportunism, and the generally absurd nature of the whole “business” of show business, this single remark is the very model of Shakespeare’s own observation that “brevity is the soul of wit.” If only that were the rule here.
Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, this theatrical version of the story, directed with high energy, if something less than subtlety by Rachel Rockwell, often feels more exhausting than beguiling. There are a number of wonderful performances in the production (including one by Dash, playing a dog named Spot). But more often than not you get the jokes the first time around, and they are then repeated again and again to the point of tedium.
For example, we very quickly understand that Will Shakespeare (Nick Rehberger) is suffering from writers’ block as he begins work on what he envisions as a comedy titled, in full Mel Brooks-like form, “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” But this fact is relentlessly hammered home. Of course the play ultimately will morph into the tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet,” with much of the plot supplied by Shakespeare’s gay friend and competitor, the eminent dramatist Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (solid work by Michael Perez), with enhancements, including the balcony scene, inspired by Shakespeare’s pursuit of Viola (Kate McGonigle) in “real life.” There also will be the suggestion that the seeds for another play infused with lovesickness — “Twelfth Night” — have been planted in Shakespeare’s imagination, again inspired by real events.
And of course there are other complications. Not only is Viola, who is by far the best “actor” to audition for the role of Romeo, breaking all the rules of the theater of that time — and engaging in a profession considered one step better than prostitution — she is hellbent on escaping an arranged marriage with the loathsome Wessex (Dennis Grimes is just despicable enough), who wants to marry her for her money, and plans to head off to Virginia to make his fortune on a tobacco plantation.
Along with Shakespeare’s many anxieties (he happens to be married, a fact he conveniently fails to mention to Viola), there is the anxiety of his producer, Henslowe (Larry Yando in his usual top-notch comic form), whose feet are literally being held to the fire for not paying what he owes to Fennyman (Ron E. Rains, also first-rate), the owner of the Rose Theatre. Henslowe’s motto (which is the play’s second best line), is that despite what often seems like looming theatrical disaster, somehow things “always work out, though how that happens is a mystery.”
The leading roles of Shakespeare and Viola are ably portrayed by the Rehberger and McGonigle, but why it was necessary to import New York actors for this production — when dozens of Chicago actors easily could have played these characters every bit as well — is difficult to understand.
The character roles have been deftly cast, with Jake Helm as the preternaturally smart and black-hearted young John Webster (who will grow up to be the famous Jacobean dramatist), is sharp as a tack. Catherine Smitko, as Viola’s “Nurse,” lays the groundwork for Juliet’s caretaker. Scott Danielson is quite wonderful as the actor who rises above his terrible stutter. Tomothy D. Stickney, as the fabled actor, Richard Burbage, from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, is full of authority. Luigi Sottile is just flamboyant enough playing the effete actor, Ned Alleyn. And Nathaniel Braga is a hoot as the boyish actor cast in the role of Juliet whose voice suddenly changes.
Scott Davis’ handsome set is a neat complement to Chicago Shakespeare’s own Courtyard beauty, with handsome costumes by Susan E. Mickey. Matt Hawkins’ sword fight choreography is terrifyingly dangerous and expertly rendered by the actors. Composer Neil Bartram’s original score is a beauty, with the voice of Alana Grossman absolutely breathtaking (wish there were more of it).
All that said, the relentless hilarity and manic drive of the show too often feels like much ado about nothing.