It’s extremely common for a book or play to become a movie—it’s why “the book was better” is a T-shirt and not the other way around. Often when a movie becomes a play, it’s hard to capture the world immersion of a larger-than-life screen, to allow the emotions of a close-up telling the audience exactly where to look, and to not be hampered by the ability to change scenes in a blink of an eye. Yet for all the charm of the 1998 movie, you’d never know it wasn’t a play first when you sit in the audience of Sterling Playmakers’ Shakespeare in Love. Effortlessly, the cast and crew allow you to forget the movie entirely and believe the story all started on the stage—and the stage is where it belongs.
It’s London 1593, and Will Shakespeare is not yet the bard that every high schooler has to study. Instead, he’s a frustrated playwright who owes money and finished plays to nearly everyone he meets. Chris Shea is not the placid Shakespeare of history; instead, he brings energy to every emotion—whether it’s the longing for a muse (whom he’ll soon meet) or palling around with Kit Marlowe (Glen Bartram). In the short span of a play, Shea shows the growth of the character from a man with nothing to a man who has lost his everything. Bartram is sublime as Marlowe, serving as Will’s conscience and his best friend. Viola, a theater-struck wellborn woman, is captured perfectly by Cameo Manning—who seems just as comfortable as Thomas Kent as she is as Viola. Her exuberance, anger, and eventual acceptance of her fate are heart-wrenching and poignant. Lesser actors would be tempted to play the villain, Lord Wessex, as a caricature, but not Spencer Milligan, who plays the straight man, which actually makes Lord Wessex even more detestable. And he’s very detestable.
These main characters are supported perfectly by the rest of the cast, notably Casey Wichman as the knows-more-than-she-says Nurse, Brian Tepe as the stage star Ned Alleyn, and Janet Davis as Queen Elizabeth. Every character seems to know exactly who they are within the scene and add to it in their own unique way. There’s simply not a weak cog in this machine as each cast member moves the story forward to its tragic conclusion.
The director, John Geddie, made the effective choice to have the scene changes all happen in front of the curtain. With a total of 21 scenes over two acts, even the hardiest of curtain pullers could get exhausted. Instead, by having the cast also move the set pieces, the audience is never taken out of the world. This is added by Will Shakespeare often using the aisles during chase scenes and “the auditions” to find his Romeo. Even with the many scene changes, the performance never lags or slows—an accomplishment of both the director and his well-chosen cast. The pacing is natural and allows for the wittiness of both the script and the very very funny characters. The play had to take numerous beats during the performance to allow the audience to finish laughing at a well-timed raised eyebrow or a perfectly delivered quip.
No review of this show would be complete without mentioning the costumes. Simply put, they are glorious. Designed by Kati Andresen, the costumes embrace the time period and are richly colored. The fabrics are decadent and add to the characters sumptuously. They are just beautiful to see on stage—especially the magnificent Queen Elizabeth, whose wig, make-up, and dress (oh, the ruff!) should have gotten a curtain call of their own.
Even if you’re familiar with the movie, Sterling Playmakers’ Shakespeare in Love brings a lovely and more intimate interpretation of the story. For about three hours, you can immerse yourself in the world of not Will Shakespeare of leather-bound books, but of Will and Kit and Viola and Nurse—and all the other friends you’ll meet while you watch this wonderfully acted and delightfully directed Shakespeare in Love.
Running Time: Three hours including one intermission.
Shakespeare in Love plays through October 21, 2023, presented by Sterling Playmakers performing at The Theatre at Seneca Ridge Middle School, 98 Seneca Ridge Drive, Sterling, VA. Tickets ($18) are available online and at the door. There are Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Oct. 15 and Oct. 22. On Friday, October 13, the performance will be followed by a “talk back” session with Dr. Jennifer Wood, a professor at George Mason University and Managing Editor of Shakespeare Quarterly.
The cast list is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are recommended but not required. Sterling Playmakers’ Pandemic Policies and Procedures may be found here.
Shakespeare in Love
Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall
Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom StoppardProduced by Nour Bahri and Curtis Lewis
Directed by John Geddie