“Shakespeare in Love” began as a film. This was 1998, and audiences were ready for a romantic comedy that imagined the great Elizabethan playwright as a youthful hunk in peak crisis mode, undone by a woman suited up as a man.
And it wasn’t just froth. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay mocked the ironies of law, love and literature.
In this bejeweled age more than four centuries ago, a woman could rule the world but not perform in a play. A father could sell his daughter to a man she detested and send her off to a strange land, like a slave. And a struggling poet could find inspiration for his plays in that self-same daughter-actor-lover, who just happened to have a balcony and a nurse. (Nudge, nudge.)
This fictive cinematic conceit, which ended up winning seven Academy Awards, was an English major’s giddiest dream, plotted like an actual Shakespeare play.
Now it’s back in the form of a stage adaptation by Lee Hall, which opens the Alliance Theatre’s new season at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center.
“Shakespeare in Love” — as directed by Richard Garner and performed by a robust company in the space once occupied by Garner’s late great Georgia Shakespeare — remains a delightful entertainment, with some astute feminist commentary thrown in for good measure.
A tad long, a bit slow to congeal and perhaps not as clever as it once seemed (but tell me: what is?), it is nonetheless a dizzying achievement and a fortuitous moment for the Alliance, which finds itself a theater-in-exile during the yearlong renovation of its Peachtree Street playhouse.
Here, in the stylishly crafted film roles created by Joseph Fiennes (Will), Gwyneth Paltrow (Will’s muse, Viola) and Judi Dench (who else but Queen Elizabeth I?), we meet Thomas Azar, Bethany Anne Lind and Tinashe Kajese-Bolden.
Oh, yes, and Thomas Neal Antwon Ghant (Christopher Marlowe), Tess Malis Kincaid (Viola’s Nurse), Joe Knezevich (Wessex), Chris Kayser (Fennyman), Jeremy Aggers (Wabash) and Travis Smith (in a variety of roles), actors who, if you are just tuning in to Atlanta theater, aren’t exactly slouches.
Azar and Lind are lovely as Will and Viola.
In one of the smallest speaking roles, Aggers, as the stagestruck stutterer Wabash, gives perhaps the night’s most moving performance.
And just so you are in on the little collegiate joke, the program says Henslowe (the owner of The Rose and Shakespeare’s producer) is played by one Armitage Shanks. Turns out, it’s Garner, who proves himself to be a game and nimble comedian, as well as an expert director.
Henslowe insists that every show’s gotta have a dog, because the queen is a pooch lover. (Thus we have Spot, adorably played by bichon frise Norman.)
Not to be overlooked, Angela Balogh Calin’s ravishing sets and costumes are elegantly designed and realized. Ken Yunker’s lighting flatters everything it falls upon. And McCree O’Kelley’s choreography is all of a piece with the faux-period dance ditties.
Like the plays of the Bard, “Shakespeare in Love” revels in mistaken identities, foppish characters, Byzantine storytelling and political commentary. Viola, whose desire to tread the boards is such that she is willing to impersonate a man and break the law, is a feminist icon. As is Elizabeth, who knows very well what it’s like to work in a man’s profession.
Kajese-Bolden manages to summon the smirking vulgarity of the queen. An amusing take, and I admire it. But something of the brittle majesty of this icon is lost. She must bark, and she must bite. But must she be such a caricature?
In the end, the symmetry of having Garner direct at his old home theater is newsworthy and kind of bittersweet. Nicely played, Alliance.
But the reason to see this show is manifest in the play, which is the thing after all. By dint of its authors’ imaginations, “Shakespeare in Love” humanizes a historical figure whose biography is nothing if not murky.
So why not invent the man we’d like him to be? That he’s played by a handsome, comically dexterous actor, and falls for a woman who has something to say about love and justice, just makes him all the more appealing.
“Shakespeare in Love”
Through Sept. 24. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. No 7:30 p.m. performance Sept. 24. Tickets start at $20. Produced by the Alliance Theatre at Oglethorpe University’s Performing Arts Center, 4484 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheater.org.
Bottom line: Puts the sex in Shakespeare.
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