The original movie Shakespeare in Love, written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, holds up well under its transition to the stage (adapted by Lee Hall) in the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s current production.
The cleverness of the conceit—that a young William Shakespeare (Jordan Brown), suffering writer’s block, is inspired by his meeting with a lovely heiress, Viola (Laura Rook), to create the seminal love story of Romeo and Juliet—still entertains, especially because it’s combined with a lively, fond look at the world of the theater, which may not have changed all that much since Will’s day.
It helps, too, that the play is given sumptuous design here, from its revolving set by Scott Davis (a replica of the Rose Theatre, which easily switches to other locales) to its compleat range of costumes (from workmanlike to lavish, in the case of the finery worn by Queen Elizabeth, portrayed here by Peggy Roeder) to the lighting of Robert Wierzel, which can take us from mood to mood with subtlety and pleasure.
We first meet up with our hero at his desk, struggling to put together even the most basic words of one of his most famous sonnets. Fortunately for him, in this imagining of his early years, he’s friends with fellow playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (Matt Mueller), who’s willing both to toss him a useful phrase and to act as a Cyrano for him when Will begins to court the fair Viola.
Of course, you’ll remember if you’ve seen the film that Viola is actually (like several of Shakespeare’s heroines) in disguise as a man for a goodly part of the story. It’s her passion for the stage that leads her to don men’s wear, since women weren’t allowed there.
That passion is shared by the loudly declaiming actor-producer Burbage (David Breithbarth); his penurious but eternally optimistic rival Henslowe (Jack Wetherall); and even, eventually, the tough money lender Fennyman (David Lively), who falls under the spell once he’s assigned a role himself.
And let’s not forget Viola’s helpful nurse (Catherine Smitko), a model for Juliet’s own; the posturing performer Ned Alleyn (Nate Burger); the frequently apoplectic censor Edmund Tilney (Matt DeCaro); and Viola’s haughty, fortune-hunting suitor Wessex (Brandon Dahlquist), as well as all the hungry young actors cast in Will’s new play (a good opportunity for the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s male students, especially Christopher Carlson as Sam, the Elizabethan actor playing the female roles).
Throw all those wonderful characters together with some well-staged swordplay, period-sounding music composed by Neil Bartram, and the mandatory “bit with a dog” (Sting, a scene stealer if ever there was one), and you’ve got a lot of fun onstage.
More fun, perhaps, than romance; somehow the love scenes between Brown and Rook aren’t quite as stirring as they might be, although individually the two actors are appealing and do their roles justice.
Overall, in director Rachel Rockwell’s more than capable hands, Shakespeare in Love is an entertainment the Bard himself might enjoy. It continues in rotating repertory through March 28; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.