SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE Is Witty, Romantic and Exceptionally Well Staged

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE Is Witty, Romantic and Exceptionally Well Staged

Pictured: Kate McGonigle and Nick Rehberger. Photo by Liz Lauren. 

Review: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

By Jude Hansen

Chicago Shakespeare’s SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE — an adaptation of the hit film — is a lively romp littered with gender confusion and insider Shakespeare references. But don’t be too alarmed if you’re a little rusty on the Bard, the production has plenty else to offer in the way of entertainment. It’s witty, romantic and exceptionally well staged. All the while paying faithful homage to the source material. Very faithful.

Nick Rehberger is suitably charming as Will Shakespeare and even strikes a similar visage to Joseph Fiennes. Kate McGonigle as Viola enters the play with a transfixing turn, reciting the Sylvia speech with natural aplomb and ease. Her radiance and exuberance are undeniable, her passion for Will only exceeded by her love of poetry. Her transformation into Thomas Kent, however, is not cosmetically convincing. But who cares, right? We make believe and go along with it. Afterall, it’s the theater, and you always should pack a suspension of disbelief in your lunchbox for such an outing. AND… It’s a comedy, so it’s best not to ask too many questions about representations of gender identity and just focus on having a good time. Don’t mistake me, it is a highly entertaining story and a vibrant production and fans of the movie will not be disappointed as this incarnation stays very true to the original film.

The set itself (by designer Scott Davis) is an ingenious marvel to behold. A revolving stage easily moves us from on stage to behind the scenes with the turn of the constructed semi-hexagonal balcony, reminiscent of the globe itself. Add in a hydraulic trap door lift to bring in Shakespeare’s writing studio and at other times the Queen herself and you’ve got a full set of state of the art gadgets. A true testament to the production is how they had to scramble to make it work on opening night without this lift, after it broke down mid regal entrance.

The performances are all solid and polished. Michael Perez as Marlowe is absolutely dreamy and captivating; he left me wanting to see some Marlowe gracing the Chicago Shakespeare stage. When’s that going to happen? Other solid performances come from Catherine Smitko as the Nurse, Timothy Stickney as Burbage, Scott Danielson as Wabash and Luigi Sottile as Ned Alleyn. It would also be absolutely remiss not to mention the crowd’s favorite cast member, Dash the dog playing Spot. Nathanial Braga as Sam gives a delicate performance that shines with comic gold. It certainly is enthralling to see an actor making surprising and activated choices, filling every single moment they have on stage. Linda Reiter gives an exceptional impersonation of Judi Dench, who herself in playing the role of Queen Elizabeth garnered herself an Oscar with only about eight minutes of screen time. The ensemble cast are at their frantic finest during the highly choreographed and energetic scene where Burbage arrives to claim his play from the already under way rehearsals at The Rose.

The actors are also so aptly and wonderfully supported by all the production elements. The costumes throughout are a lavish and sumptuous feast, constantly changing palette to reflect a new location. There is incredibly beautiful lighting in the Juliet’s tomb scene. Viola’s face is washed with a cool blue to give her a corpse-like appearance, while Will is bathed warm glow to show that his Romeo is decidedly more alive. It’s a heavenly delicate plot that just works perfectly. Beautifully sung by the cast are intermittent refrains of music that enable us to transition easily between scenes.

But the real joy in the production are all the subtle and not so subtle references to other Shakespeare quotes and plays. There is far too many to mention but for example, the sporting of cross-gartered yellow stockings alluding to the deception of Malvolio in TWELFTH NIGHT. Or when Viola marvels that wonders of sex are perhaps better than Will’s plays, Will confirms that it certainly is better than his last (TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA is problematic to say the least, but at least it has a dog in it!).

SPOILER WARNING: I also wonder if anyone else is struck by the bizarrely horrific ending of the play. For our lovers, Viola is subjected to live with her would-be rapist that she does not love (he also makes off with a fortune by the way) and Will is destined to return to a loveless marriage. But hey, at least he has broken his writer’s block, wrote a true romantic love story and has the stage to keep him company. Except they’ve closed down The Rose, leaving him and the acting troupe with a dubious future. It’s a romantic comedy that leaves you feeling good at it’s conclusion, but when you break down the fate of the characters, it is puzzling as to why.

To summarize, I’ll simply leave it to Queen Elizabeth: “Playwrights teach us nothing about love. They make it pretty, they make it comical or make it lust.” This production accomplishes the implausible feat of making it all three.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE runs through June 11th. For more information visit chicagoshakes.com.

About author

Jude Hansen

An MFA graduate from Roosevelt University, Jude has worked w/ Redmoon Theatre, The House Theatre, The New Colony, & Kid Brooklyn Productions, to name a few. Before moving to the States from Australia, Jude was a founding member & artistic director of Placenta Theatre, recipient of Best Director two years running at Midsumma Theatre Festival, & recipient of the Australian National Young Playwrights Award. He is represented by Shirley Hamilton & currently working on writing a comedic television series.

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