Review: ‘Shakespeare In Love’ at Baltimore Center Stage

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Many people are already familiar with Shakespeare In Love from the 1998 Academy Award-winning movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, but in many ways a stage production of the piece is a much more logical endeavor. Producers obviously felt this way as well, because in 2014, the play opened on the London stage. From there, regional productions began to spring up everywhere. Baltimore Center Stage is now hosting the Delmarva regional debut of this entertaining work.

Shakespeare In Love has been adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, based on the original screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Blake Robison, who previously directed this co-production at the Cincinnati Playhouse, directs the Baltimore Center Stage production.

Robison eases his audience into the world of the play by starting this production of Shakespeare In Love by having actors stroll onto the stage – ostensibly to perform some pre-show stretches, but ultimately Richard Buchanan and Taha Mandviwala serves as comedic foils welcoming the assembled crowd to the theater. They also have equally funny roles in the play itself.

For those that don’t remember, the plot of Shakespeare In Love revolves around Shakespeare struggling to write a successful play – one he has promised to two different theaters – and the noblewoman who longs to be an actor during a time when women were not allowed on the public stage. As happens in many of the Bard’s writings: gender-swapping, misunderstandings, and a fair amount of hilarity ensue.

Leading the cast for this production are Nicholas Carriere as Shakespeare and Emily Trask as Viola de Lesseps. These two have a palpable chemistry during their scenes together. They both have a firm grasp of the comedic timing needed, but they really excel at the more intimate moments shared by these two characters. Trask also has to impersonate male actor, Thomas Kent, a task she makes look easy.

Towards the ends of both acts, there are extended sequences featuring these two performers that come directly from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. These moments will have the audience wishing they could see this cast in a full production of that classic tragedy.

Shakespeare In Love is, first and foremost, a love fest to the theater. The audience will delight at the behind-the-scenes glimpse of theater life in Elizabethan times. The script contains a multitude of allusions to famous Shakespeare lines. Even a sub-plot featuring the excellent Avery Glymph as Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, plays with the long-held theory that William Shakespeare may not have been the sole author of his legendary oeuvre.

Other stand-out performances include: Michael Brusasco’s slimy turn as the Duke of Wessex; David Whalen’s effective embodiment of egotistical actor and contemporary celebrity, Edward “Ned” Alleyn; John Plumpis’ Fennyman, who shines when told he will get to make his stage debut as the apothecary; Brent Harris’ dramatically over-the-top theater owner, Burbage; and the hilarious Nurse brought to life by Laura Gordon.

It is to the credit of Director Blake Robison that, despite tradition and historical accuracy, he peppers the cast with some much-needed diversity. As just two examples of many: Jefferson A. Russell has great fun with the crazy situations the plot requires of him and Barzin Akhavan excels at comedic moments required of his role as theater-owner Henslowe.

Costume Designer Kathleen Geldard is to be commended for creating some stunning ensembles for the entire cast. In particular, those worn by Naomi Jacobsen during her brief, but memorable, scenes as Queen Elizabeth are simply sumptuous. Jacobsen elicits many guffaws from the audience – especially with her hand gestures – and clearly enjoyed wearing those elaborate costumes.

Tim Mackabee created the scenic design for Shakespeare In Love. His recreation of an Elizabethan theater is both beautiful and effective in the close confines of the Head Theater. The lighting design by Michelle Habeck and the sound design by Matthew M. Nielson set the needed mood throughout. In particular, the musical interludes that underscore the scene changes serve as an unexpected but appreciated surprise. Both Choreographer Diane Lala and Fight Director Rick Sordelet make successful use of the limited stage area.

This production of Shakespeare In Love will surely please just about any theatergoer. It would be a perfect date-night excursion for those looking to up their romantic game.

Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Shakespeare In Love plays through November 26, 2017, at Baltimore Center Stage – 700 North Calvert Street in Baltimore, Maryland. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.