Opera House Theatre Company had a long and busy summer with a string of hit shows. Right now, on Thalian’s main stage is their season-closer, an adaption of the 1998 film “Shakespeare in Love.” It remains one of my favorite movies, cowritten by Marc Norman and arguably one of the truly great living playwrights, Tom Stoppard. It won multiple awards for its writing, production value and performances, as it’s a beautiful love letter to the magic of art.
In 2014, a stage adaptation by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot” ) premiered; I have been curious to see it ever since. When I heard Mike O’Neil was directing it for Opera House, I began counting down to curtain call with anticipation. The local debut is well worth the wait, too.
The story follows Will Shakespeare (Paul Teal), who is suffering from writer’s block and empty pockets—a helluva combination. His good friend and colleague/competition, Kit Marlowe (Zeb Mims), can relate. With these two it’s not so much bitter rivalry, like athletes who toss the mental and artistic football back and forth, but more like stories we hear about Lennon and McCartney’s early writing process. Both are working writers with bills to pay, fees to collect and work to sell. It’s a delight to watch them wheel and deal their way through London, as they promise and cross promise dueling theatre owners Henslowe (Randy Davis) and Burbage (Lee Lowrimore) the same work.
Davis manages to take one of the more memorable roles (originally played by Geoffrey Rush) and make it his own, while still milking the comedy. Henslowe is in serious debt to Fennyman (Robin Dale Robertson), whose heavy brigade literally holds the indebted’s feet to the fire. All this somehow gets solved with Will Shakespeare promising Henslowe a new play for production, “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter”—a sure crowd pleaser. Auditions begin immediately with a rag-tag group from the local tavern, and Will is justifiably disappointed in the turnout, until a young Thomas Kent turns up to audition. Who is this performer? He is the perfect Romeo! Utilizing one of Shakespeare’s favorite tricks—dramatic irony—the audience knows young Viola de Lesseps (Alissa Fetherolf), dressed as a man, is determined to pursue her passion for plays and poetry. It’s an incredible gamble at a time when women are forbidden by law from appearing on stage. More so, young women of wealth are expected to be beautiful, submissive wives and nothing more. Thus, young Will has no idea what he puts into motion upon casting Thomas Kent as Romeo.
The conceit of the script is Will plays out his real-life events, which inspire the writing of “Romeo and Juliet.” So he and Marlowe head out to look for Thomas Kent and wind up at the engagement party for Viola and Lord Wessex (Ashley Strand). Here the audience sees the birth of the dance scene with some of the most lovely and flirtatious word play ever written. Fetherolf and Teal have wonderful chemistry on stage. Watching this scene and the subsequent balcony scene makes “Romeo and Juliet” come alive in a way many have tried and few have accomplished. It is a delicate balance because Viola (and Juliet) is excited about their new adventure in love. Everything she has been promised but never expected before unfolds. With Fetherolf we get joyful, titillating excitement, mixed with nervous adrenaline.
Will (and Romeo) has more experience with the opposite sex, but still enough youthful vitality to believe in absolutes and dwell in fantasies for a while. From the first moment at the party, to the scene when he is in her bedroom, as she reads the pages for the next day’s rehearsal, these two give the audience everything we ever wanted “Romeo and Juliet” to be onstage. I couldn’t take my eyes off them and I am unsure which one I’m more infatuated with; together, they play out young romance so deftly it captivates.
I primarily know Teal’s work in musical theatre—”Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “Memphis,” “Sister Act.” His performance in “Memphis” far outstripped Chad Kimball who originated the part of Huey on Broadway. And I’m not being hyperbolic; I stand by the statement. Just watch any of the videos. Yet, this might be the first time I’ve ever seen Teal onstage in a role that doesn’t showcase his incredible singing and dancing talents. Wow! His charm and charisma, mixed with a light and subtle touch, give us a night where every time he is onstage it is a moment of discovery for him and the audience.
Obviously, I am biased and very opinionated about the Bard (as readers likely know). Even though in the film we want things to work out for the young lovers, the bar is raised a bit in this production. Strand’s Lord Wessex gives us every indication Viola is headed into an abusive marriage, physically and emotionally—one where she is viewed as a piece of property rather than a person. It’s hard to watch Fetherolf try to uphold her dignity and personhood in the face of what the audience and her nurse (Alisa Harris) fear.
Teal’s resignation at his inability to really save Viola from this fate is palpable. When he fights a duel with Wessex, it is a last stand he knows could land him and all his compatriots in jail. We watch, knowing it is the two weeks Viola gets to truly live; it’s the moment of her life she will look back upon while merely surviving on the miserable Virginia Tobacco Plantation with Wessex; Fetherolf makes sure the audience knows it. Viola is out for the only chance of adventure, romance and happiness she is going have in an otherwise caged life.
Anyone familiar with the film will remember the cast is vast. Just trying to get a show of this size mounted must have been an epic journey, but the entire local cast is wonderful to watch and have managed to blend enough homage to the film with original interpretations of characters to make the night a special experience.
Terry Collins’ set is a wonderful playground for the performers. Primarily, it utilizes the Minstrel’s Gallery that would have been standard in the halls of the great houses of the time or above the stage in a theatre. In dark wood, with Tudor-style cutouts, it is evocative and unobtrusive. Set pieces like Viola’s bed and Henslowe’s chair of torture, or the bar for the tavern to move on and off stage create locations the cast travel to. Seriously, though, this cast could sell the script on a bare stage.
There are nights I go to the theatre to be reminded why art is important. There are nights I go to the theatre for distraction from everyday problems. There are nights I go to the theatre to fall in love again and spark some romance. But some nights I go and find the perfect offering of art, love, romance and illumination all waiting. That’s what audiences will find with “Shakespeare in Love.”