The Oscar-winning film, Shakespeare in Love, has been adapted for the stage, and what better company to present its Chicago premiere than Chicago Shakespeare Theater, whose lush costumes and dynamic scenery frequently rival the production values of major motion pictures. Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall from Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s Academy Award-winning screenplay, the play cleverly breathes new life into arguably the most famous love story of all time.
The story of Shakespeare in Love, which greatly resembles and also tells the story of the creation of Romeo and Juliet, centers around two star-crossed lovers: Will Shakespeare (Nick Rehberger) and Viola de Lesseps (Kate McGonigle). Shakespeare is a struggling actor and writer with looming deadlines and a lack of inspiration. He unwittingly finds his muse in Viola, whose class and gender prohibit her from pursuing her love of theater by acting on London’s stage. Viola, who is enamored with the work of William Shakespeare, disguises herself as a man in order to audition for one of his plays, and, in the process, falls for the man whose work she has so long admired.
In the leading roles of Will and Viola, Rehberger and McGonigle are excellent. Both have an amiability that establishes their likability as protagonists immediately, and throughout the play we root for their love to succeed, even in the face of adversity. McGonigle in particular has a wonderful command of Shakespearean language when performing in the play-within-a-play, and Rehberger’s roguish charm establishes the Bard’s more human desires, while still staying true to what little history we know of Shakespeare’s life.
The scenic and costume design of Scott Davis and Susan Mickey, respectively, effectively and beautifully immerse you in Elizabethan England. Davis’ stage revolves throughout the production, efficiently providing a variety of speedy transitions, while also serving to reflect the action on and off stage during the fraught first performance of Romeo and Juliet. Mickey’s costuming is intricate, colorful and impressive, the crown jewel of which is the meticulously decorated Queen Elizabeth (played in this production by Linda Reiter), complemented wonderfully by Richard Jarvie’s wig and makeup design.
Rockwell’s production also uses a significant amount of live and recorded music to tell the story, with original compositions by Neil Bartram. While his compositions are memorable, at times their placement serves to nudge the performance a little too far into the territory of melodrama. While I understand the desire to underscore the piece with a score that keeps the narrative moving and provides an emotional current–the film’s evocative melodies did receive an Oscar for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score–there are times that these compositions compete with the actors to provide the play’s emotional weight.
Overall, director Rachel Rockwell’s quick-moving production features impressive performances and a charming story about love and theater sure to delight both diehard fans of and those more tentative about the Bard. The production’s engrossing performances and top-notch design help to overcome quibbles with the play’s music, which many may find perfectly appropriate to the story unfolding on stage. For those looking for an enjoyable evening at the theater, Shakespeare in Love provides just the ticket.
Shakespeare in Love will be performed at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier through June 11. Tickets are on sale for $58–$88. Special discounts are available for groups of 10 or more, as well as $20 tickets available for patrons under 35. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Box Office at 312.595.5600 or visit the theater’s website.