The fault, dear reader, is not in the production, but in the play.
The job of adapting Shakespeare in Love, 1999’s Academy Award-winning best picture, was so difficult that even Tom Stoppard—the film’s original co-author—gave up. Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) ultimately got the job done (well, sort of), and his stage adaptation has been popping up all over the country ever since it premiered in 2014 in London’s West End.
SpeakEasy Stage Company is now presenting the New England premiere of this long-in-the-works love letter to the theater, where it will run at the Calderwood Pavilion through Feb 10.
Nearly all of Hall’s faithful but uninspired adaptation is lifted directly from the film’s original screenplay, yet it’s only about half as charming. (The power of star quality, perhaps?) Despite this, what results is a play that is both good-natured and harmless, albeit a bit belabored.
The film, too, had plenty of cringeworthy moments and took a lot of abuse for being lowbrow fluff disguised as highbrow art. I have always liked Shakespeare in Love and found its criticism unfair, even if it is best remembered today as the film that robbed Saving Private Ryan of its Oscar.
It is notable that this adaptation seems to have no Broadway aspirations, especially considering the fact that the owner of its copyright is Disney, a company not opposed to subpar schlock so long as there’s a chance it will make money.
The merits of Hall’s adaptation aside, Scott Edmiston’s production now playing at SpeakEasy is a total delight, thanks mostly to Edmiston’s eager direction and the talents of its cast, chock-full of Boston’s best-loved actors.
Will Shakespeare (a dreamy George Olesky) is suffering from a bad case of writer’s block as he struggles with his latest play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. Two different acting companies—each plagued by debts and menacing creditors—are breathing down his neck for a script. The problem is—aside from the writing block—Will has promised Romeo and Ethel to both companies.
The well-born Viola de Lesseps (the ever-lovely Jennifer Ellis) dreams of true love and longs to be an actress, despite the fact that women were prohibited from the stage. She disguises herself as a man and auditions for Will, who instantly casts her as Romeo, saying that he’s never heard his words spoken with such honesty before. They fall in love, his writer’s block dissolves, and Romeo and Ethel becomes Romeo and Juliet.
It’s all pure fiction, of course, although some of the characters are drawn from real people and there are ample historical puns throughout. One of the surprising things about Hall’s script is how satisfying the endless Shakespearean puns are despite their almost excessive regularity.
Edmiston has done a terrific job of keeping things moving, even if it is sometimes at the expense of a few rushed-over subplots. And although the overlong first act struggles with both momentum and cohesion, this Shakespeare in Love hits its stride in the second act where the laughs are hard and fast. The bittersweet ending is a missed opportunity, though, and a bizarre bit of staging with Viola being pulled across the stage on a platform meant to represent a ship mars the magic that had been building beautifully just prior.
One of this production’s greatest curiosities is its costumes, playfully designed by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, whose 16th-century designs have been peppered with little touches of rock and roll. Shakespeare wears a sexy leather jacket outfitted with a ruff which I quite adored, though dressing up John Webster like Sid Vicious is just plain weird. But more troublesome is the egregious use of modern clothing throughout, which feels lazy rather than conceptual and is a frequent distraction. (Denim!? Cargo pants!? Ack!) Sorely missed, too, are more extravagant getups for the Queen. (And where, oh where is her white-faced “mask of youth?”)
But for all of Shakespeare in Love’s oddities, its cast remains its best asset. The magnetism of George Olesky’s Shakespeare and his effortless chemistry with Ellis is no small thing. Delightful, too, is Eddie Shields’ Marlowe, Nancy Carroll’s Queen Elizabeth I, and Jesse Hinson’s Ned Alleyn. As far as ensembles go, this is the best one assembled this theatrical season.
Oh, and I very much liked the dog.
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. THROUGH 2.10 AT SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM