What’s in a name? Before William Shakespeare became the most famous playwright of all time, he was Will, a struggling poet with writer’s block. “Shakespeare in Love,” a play within a play, imagines young Will’s transformation into the immortal William Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare,” based on the Oscar-winning film, is currently playing at Asolo Repertory Theatre starring Jordan Brown, as the love-besotted Will, and Laura Rook, his thespian muse. The two have a nice easy chemistry, which will likely become more passionate as the show’s run continues.
When we meet Will he is searching to find the words for a comedy he plans to entitle “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” Meanwhile, his best friend Christopher Marlowe (Matt Mueller), nicknamed “Kit,” is the toast of London, with his widely beloved “Faustus” ensuring his enduring fame.
But Will seems destined to be a one semi-hit wonder if he cannot write his next play before the Rose theater proprietor Henslowe (Jack Weatherall) succumbs to eager debt collectors.
Kit composes some of Will’s best lines, and one wonders whether some of the rumors of Shakespeare’s penchant for collaboration cum plagiarizing might be true.
In a parallel story, we meet Viola de Lesseps (Rook), an early adopter of Shakespeare’s writing who longs to be an actress. Her father has promised her hand in marriage to a nobleman -in name only – named Lord Wessex (Nate Burger).
In the age of “me too” Viola’s plight is all the more poignant. Both her wealthy father and Wessex treat her as property, but she is well read, passionate and has bigger dreams for her life. Imaging a thoroughly modern ladylove for Shakespeare was the perfect stroke of genius. How else could Shakespeare have created such pivotal female characters?
Viola learns that Shakespeare is holding auditions for his latest creation and vows to try her luck on stage. At the time, young men played women’s roles so her only option was to dress as a boy and hope her gender is not discovered.
Rook as Viola was inspired casting – her unique appearance and inner glow are captivating; and one can easily see why Will is fascinated with her in either gender. Brown is a charming Will. Yet in some of the heavier moments, his emotional range did not fully match Rook’s quiet dignity as she slowly accepts the fate of her gender while yearning for more.
Mueller is a marvelous Marlowe – full of whimsy and joy, and Nate Burger brings gravitas and authenticity to the role of Ned Alleyn stealing nearly every scene he is in.
Perennial Asolo favorite Peggy Roeder is funny and clever as Queen Elizabeth putting her own spin on the role occupied by Dame Judi Dench who won an Oscar for her performance in the film version.
“Shakespeare in Love” is all about the ways in which theater can help us better understand ourselves and others. The play’s theme is that theater transforms us in unimaginable ways regardless of whether we are on stage or in the audience. For that reason, the stage version of the well-known classic film in many ways was even more successful, particularly because of the excellent staging to the credit of scenic designer Scott Davis and director Rachel Rockwell.
It is also great fun to become a part of the process as we hear so many of the bard’s famous lines and well-known plot twists peppered throughout the script.