Review: Shakespeare in Love at Baltimore Center Stage

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

2017-18Season_330x220_v22Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

The Great Bard, William Shakespeare, not only wrote great plays, but he’s great fodder for plays and film alike. In 1998, a great film was released revolving around the fictional life-happenings and implied inspirations of Shakespeare during the writing of Romeo & Juliet called Shakespeare in Love and, it just so happens, this film has been transferred to the stage at Baltimore Center Stage in a show of the same name, Directed by Blake Robinson, with Scenic Design by Tim Macabee, and Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard. Though based on the film, Shakespeare in Love stands on its own on the stage and with a strong ensemble and well thought-out script, it makes for a successful transition.

sil-mg-160William Shakespeare is a mythical figure as it is and so many questions surround his life and work and many stories have sprouted up through the ages. Shakespeare in Love does a great job at mixing history and events that could have possibly happened, but are most likely fiction. This piece takes place around the creation of the great tragedy Romeo & Juliet and a star-crossed love affair (go figure!) between Shakespeare himself and Viola, the daughter of a rich merchant in London during the 1530s and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Scenic Design by Tim Macabee is spot on for this piece. Creating a traditional Shakespearian stage, including balcony, with a sneaking resemblance to The Rose theatre in London, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were first run, Macabee has created the mood required of this piece and transports us back to the Elizabethan age. Mainly using set pieces rather than full sets, the design is clean and gives just enough insinuation for the audience to know where each scene is taking place. This simple but effective design also makes the transitions between scenes quick and smooth.

sil-mg-289Costume Designer Kathleen Geldard is to be commended for her authentic and thoughtful design for this production. Period pieces can be tricky to costume, especially the Elizabethan era with wild designs and layers upon layers but every character was costumed appropriately, differentiating class and style with each character. Queen Elizabeth was decked out to the hilt and I loved every moment of it. Kudos on a job well done.

Lighting Design by Michelle Habeck and Sound Design by Matthew M. Nielson added great value to this production with Habeck using isolation lighting to depict dramatic moments and subtle changes in lighting levels to insinuate different times of day and location. Along with Habeck’s lighting, Nielson’s sound design moved the story along nicely and added that bit of authenticity with the mediaeval music selections driving home to point of when this story is taking place. Admirable Lighting and Sound Designs from both Habeck and Nielson for this production.

sil-mg-725Blake Robinson takes the helm of this production and gives us a fresh take on this beloved story. It’s easy to see Robinson is not trying to put the film on stage but trying to make this stage version its own entity and does so with success. He captures the true essence of the piece, which is simply a love story, weaves it through the twists and turns of the story. There are a few bits that are curious such as the jolting turns of drama and comedy where some confusion comes into the piece as if it’s a comedy or a drama. If it’s both, the blend could use some work, but the dramatic parts are well portrays, just as the comedic parts. Regardless, Robinson has a great comprehension of the material and he guides this ensemble to a successful telling of the story. The transitions are smooth and his staging is impeccable.

sil-mg-175Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, it’s worth saying the entire ensemble is dedicated and committed to this piece giving 100% to telling this story. Avery Glymph shines as Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, the man who would have probably been Shakespeare’s only equal. It’s been an argument that it was actually Marlowe who wrote the great plays that are credited to Shakespeare and being a Shakespeare fan, I don’t follow that line of thinking, but it is hinted to in this script but is very clever in the fact that it is portrayed as Marlowe just giving ideas to Shakespeare rather than writing the play completely. Glymph portrays him with dignity and a certain humility that works well for the role and he has a great command of the stage. Likewise, David Whalen, who takes on the role of Ned Alleyn, the egotistical, but realistic lead of the Admiral’s men (a company of actors), gives just the right balance of ego and humbleness that is required of this character making him one of my favorite characters. Michael Brusasco as Wessex plays a believable protagonist in this piece, exuding the snootiness and desperation of a man with a title and not much else. I wouldn’t be doing this review much good if I didn’t mention Meatball, a little Chihuahua who takes on the role of Spot, the resident dog of the troupe, who was obviously frightened, but managed to do his job and do it well! Kudos to Meatball for a great debut!

sil-mediakit-098Barzin Akhavan takes on the role of Henslowe, owner of The Rose and Brent Harris tackles the role of Burbage, owner of The Curtain and probably the most famous actor in all of England. These two actors portray these rival theatre owners beautifully with a blend of hatred that one would have for an arch nemesis and respect for each other’s integrity and art. Akhavan’s comedic timing is spot on for the character of Henslowe and Harris tackles the over-the-top, dramatic flair of Burbage brilliantly. Both work well off each other and with the company as a whole.

A couple of absolute highlights in this production are Naomi Jacobsen as Queen Elizabeth, and Laura Gordon as Nurse. Jacobsen completely embodies QE1 and her comedic timing is spot on. She also has the ability to show Elizabeth’s compassion and understanding being “a woman in a man’s profession.” She gives a strong, confident, and memorable performance. Along those lines, Gordon’s portrayal of Nurse is endearing as she is reminiscent of the written, doting Nurse of Romeo & Juliet, and she has great chemistry with Emily Trask making for an authentic, and praiseworthy performance. Both of these actresses are ones to watch in this production.

sil-mg-1036Taking on the title role as William “Will” Shakespeare, Nicholas Carriere gives an admirable performance and seems to understand his character quite well but there was something in the way his over-the-top gestures and facial expressions seem to cheapen the role. It’s clear he knows what the character is all about and his gestures are purposeful… just a little to big, making the performance look campy, at times. It could very well be a directorial choice, because in the dramatic scenes Carriere is on point and believable. His and Emily Trasks chemistry is a slow burn, is convincing and has the audience drawn into their relationship by the end of the story. Overall, his performance is strong and he has a great command of the stage.

sil-mg-273Emily Trask takes on the role of Viola de Lesseps, the heroine of the piece and the forward thinker. Lady de Lesseps wants to be an actress when women on the stage was unheard of and even considered lewd. Trask takes this role, makes it her own, and runs with it. The character of Viola is complex but Trask has a good grasp on her and the problems she faces. Her delivery of the text is impeccable and she gives a natural, commanding performance.

Final thought…Shakespeare in Love is a lighthearted, but moving piece that is a fictional story around the writing of one of William Shakespeare’s most famous works, Romeo & Juliet, that blends make believe and history seamlessly and with thoughtfulness. Being based on a popular and well-received film (and one of my absolute favorites), I was worried about how it would transfer to the stage, but, ultimately, the script stays true and the Great Bard’s reputation is still intact. The performances are spot on and each actor makes their roles their own, not being a carbon copy of the film. Whether it be script or directional choices, it seems this piece doesn’t know if it wants to be a comedy or a drama with jarring switches from one to the other. Also, a few  of the performances were a bit over the top, at times, but overall, fans of the film and those unfamiliar with the story will be delighted with this production and it’s not one you want to miss this season.

This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s production of Shakespeare in Love… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Shakespeare in Love will run through November 26 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at 410-332-0033 or purchase them online.

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