With a title like Shakespeare in Love (and its dimestore-novel connotations), you might expect this show to be one of the shallowest, most questionable entertainments you are likely to find. You would not be disappointed. Shakespeare in Love is shameless, delirious, fangirl idolatry of the author considered to be the pinnacle of writing in English. Don’t go to Shakespeare in Love for facts or history. Go to Shakespeare in Love for good, trashy fun. On the night I saw it, the audience, packed cheek-by-jowl into the Keegan Theatre, had a ball.
Will Shakespeare (Terrance Fleming) is a playwright with the heart of a street hustler. In an attempt to make ends meet, he has sold to several different producers the performance rights to plays that he has not written yet. Unfortunately, he has also developed a case of writer’s block. When the play opens we find him writing sonnets as a way to take his mind off of his playwriting and financial situation. His friend and artistic competitor, Kit Marlowe (Duane Richards II), helps him with his sonnet writing. And in a Cyrano de Bergerac–meets–Romeo-and-Juliet moment, while standing under her balcony, Marlowe helps him improvise a verse to Viola de Lesseps (Ashley D. Nguyen), Shakespeare’s new crush. Viola has a crush on Shakespeare’s writing and on Shakespeare himself.
Since women are not allowed to perform in the theater, Viola disguises herself as a man, “Thomas Kent,” in order to audition for a role in Shakespeare’s new, still-being-written play. Shakespeare falls in love with her interpretation of his words, not realizing that “Kent” is his beloved Viola. Meanwhile, Viola has been engaged by her father, Sir Robert de Lesseps (Valerie Adams Rigsbee), to Lord Wessex (Jon Townson), a plantation owner in Virginia. (The fact that this means that he is a slave owner and they will be master and mistress of the plantation in ol’ Virginny is not belabored.) She accepts the contemporary economic facts of the situation and is resigned to fulfill her marriage to Lord Wessex. But she makes one final trip to the theater to watch Shakespeare’s latest work.
By this point, everyone in the cast knows that “Thomas Kent” is really Viola. Shakespeare himself has been enrolled to play Romeo, which is the role Viola as “Thomas Kent” was intended to play. When Viola arrives, she is informed that the leading boy-female actor has lost his voice. Since Viola knows all the lines, she is pressed into playing the part, opposite her true love, Shakespeare. After this performance she sets sail with Lord Wessex for Virginia. Shakespeare, having recovered from his writer’s block, begins work on his next play, Twelfth Night, by royal command of The Queen of England.
It’s an exuberant, overstuffed production that plays like one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti with four or five featured instruments that are supported by an oversized orchestra or two. The three lead actors hold the show together. But every actor in this play has at least one scene during which they can, and do, chew the scenery to tatters.
Terrance Fleming’s Will Shakespeare, far from being a slender, slightly effete, artistic consumptive, is a fleshy sensualist, with bodily intentions and possibilities barely constrained by his costumes. He has the body type that among certain connoisseurs might be referred to as “thick.” He leads the cast with sure-footed authority. On the other hand, if you ever need a strong supporting man, call on Duane Richards II. His Kit Marlowe is the definitive wingman. He does not compete with Fleming’s Shakespeare. Rather he accepts and builds on Fleming’s every stage offer and reveals why Will Shakespeare would value having such a would-be competitor around. He makes everything Fleming does look better. Richards also serves as an applause-evoking countertenor in the musical interludes. Ashley D. Nguyen plays Viola with a balance of pliant gentleness and steadfast artistic and personal integrity. The love scenes between Will Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps are, to borrow a phrase, fire.
The show uses color-blind (and gender-blind) casting, thus bringing to mind the 1997 film Cinderella, which featured Brandy and Paolo Montalban, and the more recent color-conscious casting of the popular series Bridgerton.
The dance choreography (Douglas Dubois) is impressive. The choreographer manages to effectively shift our attention among conversations that take place during the dances without stopping the dances for the conversation and without the movement becoming clunky while the conversation proceeds.
The fight choreography (Ryan Sellers) was equally effective.. In one especially enjoyable fight scene about three-quarters of the way through, the entire cast is involved in a dizzying and amusing fight that moved the story forward in a delightful way and uplifted the play’s energy.
The sets and costumes are evocative and clever, each always giving you something new to watch with each scene. There are musical interludes throughout the piece appropriately evoking the Elizabethan period, under the astute musical direction of Tiffany Holmes.
Co-Directors Ricky Drummond and Douglas DuBois set out to give us an entertaining piece and they have succeeded.
Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
COVID Safety: Masks and proof of vaccination are required. For the Keegan Theatre’s complete policies and procedures around keeping patrons, artists, and staff safe and healthy this season, visit their Health & Safety page.
Shakespeare in Love
Adapted by Lee Hall from the screenplay by Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard
Co-Director: Ricky Drummond
Co-Director & Dance Choreographer: Douglas Dubois
Music Director: Tiffany Holmes
Fight Choreographer: Ryan Sellers