Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Shakespeare in Love
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Review by John Olson

Also see John's reviews of Aladdin and Marry Me a Little


(foreground) Ryan McBride, Dash the dog,
Linda Reiter, Fred Geyer; (background)
Catherine Smitko, Ron King, Jerre Dye

Photo by Liz Lauren
I own a DVD of Shakespeare in Love , but despite my love for the film, I don't believe I've ever gotten around to watching the DVD. Even so, I made a point of getting to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of Lee Hall's stage adaptation of the screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. If my memory serves me well, Hall's version is exceedingly faithful to the film—and to say director Rachel Rockwell's production employs a cast in no way inferior to John Madden's corps that included Oscar-winning performances by Gwyneth Paltrow and Dame Judi Dench alongside the likes of Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Tom Wilkinson, Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton, Joseph Fiennes and Rupert Everett is high praise.

In the Paltrow role of Viola de Lesseps is the New York based Kate McGonigle, who carries the elegance of a noble-born young Englishwoman along with the independent spirit and ability to dream that would allow her to picture herself an actress in a society that didn't allow women to act on stage—and to be a good one at that. McGonigle has believable chemistry with Nick Rehberger as Shakespeare. Rehberger is another New York actor, with some prestigious Broadway credits as well as HBO series like Girls. He has the looks and romantic charm of a talented yet insecure man in his mid-twenties and enough charisma to carry the show. Chicago favorite Larry Yando has the Geoffrey Rush role of theatre manager Philip Henslowe and lands all his big comic lines as Henslowe keeps his spirits high in the face of so many obstacles to simply getting his show up in front of an audience. Linda Reiter is the production's Queen Elizabeth I, and her powerful reading of the lines in her few brief scenes remind us of how Dame Dench won an Oscar for performing just eight minutes of Stoppard and Norman's text. Remember her "I know something of a woman in a man's profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that"? Reiter's reading of that speech will bring it all back to you.

There's terrific character work from the others in supporting roles as well: Ron E. Rains is an effectively comical Fennyman, the lender whom Henslowe hopes to repay with profits from Shakespeare's new play Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. Dennis Grimes is Essex, the nasty nobleman to whom Viola is engaged, and he makes a believably and threatening villain. Michael Perez is a dashing and confident Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, friend and playwrighting mentor to Shakespeare. Luigi Sottile (the handsome and touching Cassio of last year's Othello at Chicago Shakes) is the egotistical yet professional and loyal lead actor Ned Alleyn. Jerre Dye is a threatening Tilney, the henchman of Lord Chamberlain who intends to arrest all the actors for indecency after discovering the actor playing Juliet is Viola, shouting, "that woman is a woman!" And, young Jake Helm (alternating with Matthew Uzarraga), as a darkly mischievous 10-year-old John Webster, would nearly steal the show, but that honor might go to Dash, the dog—playing Spot, the dog.

Rockwell gives us a cinematically smooth staging of the piece, with Scott Davis' set built mainly around a multilevel structure similar to the theaters of the time. It rotates to represent other places, and various set pieces like Will's writing desk and the Queen's throne arise as needed from a trap door in the center of the thrust stage. Susan E. Mickey's costumes are elegantly detailed and period appropriate and Neil Bartram has composed an award-worthy background score with the fullness and grace of some of the best movie music. If we miss the gritty and detailed art direction of the film, there is compensation in experiencing the play live, in Chicago Shakes' Globe-inspired Courtyard Theater.

Did they improve on the film? Can that even be done? The film's only detractors, as I recall, were those who thought it too light in subject matter to win the Best Picture Oscar over Steven Spielberg's World War II drama Saving Private Ryan. Going up against a film co-written by one our era's most lauded playwrights and featuring a cast of some of the finest English actors (and a couple of not-so-shabby American ones) is a daunting task, but Rockwell's production compares well and earns its feel-good ending. Whether it's better than Saving Private Ryan is a question we don't need to be concerned with this time around.

Shakespeare in Love will play Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, Chicago, through June 11, 2017. For information and tickets, visit www.chicagoshakes.com or call 312-595-5600.


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