Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Shakespeare in Love
Great River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arthur's reviews of All's Well That Ends Well and French Twist


Anna Sundberg, Christopher Peltier,
and Michael Fitzpatrick

Photo by Dan Norman
The 1998 film Shakespeare in Love was a major hit and award magnet, including Oscar wins for Best Picture, Best Actress and Supporting Actress, and Best Screenplay. That screenplay, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, has been adapted into a stage play by Lee Hall, best known for the screenplay and Tony-winning book for the musical version of Billy Elliot. In 2014, Shakespeare in Love premiered on stage in London's West End where it enjoyed a healthy run, followed by a sold-out engagement at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. It had its U.S. premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in February 2017 and has since been mounted by regional theaters around the country. Great River Shakespeare Festival's current production marks the show's first staging in Minnesota.

Happily, Lee's adaption follows the screenplay quite closely, even keeping some of the dialogue intact. The story takes liberties with some historical facts and timelines, but it offers a basically sound sketch of the London theater scene in the late 16th century. Theater produced for the public was a relatively new phenomenon at the time, and theater companies were required to be chartered by the reigning monarch, who at the time was Elizabeth I. The arbiters of morality viewed the newly formed actors and theater companies with skepticism, and monitored carefully to make sure their offerings fell within accepted discourse. One absolute rule was that women were forbidden to appear on stage. Female roles in plays were thus performed by male actors, preferably those with higher pitched voices.

The plays of William Shakespeare had become extremely popular, almost receiving the acclaim given to Christopher Marlowe, considered the greatest playwright of the day. Two Gentleman of Verona had just opened at Philip Henslowe's Rose Theater, but, even with help from his friend Marlow, Will is finding it difficult to crank out his next play for Henslowe, a comedy he has titled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. It doesn't help that rival producer Richard Burbage is on Will's neck for the same play. It seems Burbage gave Will a cash advance for the rights to mount the play at his theater. Henslowe, in debt to moneylender Hugh Fennyman, is eager to get the play up quickly and insists on holding auditions, even with barely more than one scene written. Will despairs further as a pack of inept actors try out for the lead role of Romeo, all wildly unsuitable. Then an unknown actor named Thomas Kent arrives and dazzles Will with a superb reading of the role.

In fact, Thomas Kent is actually Viola de Lesseps, a young woman of good breeding and wealth, who has been in thrall of theater all her life. Determined to be on stage herself, she disguises herself as a man. It is not long before Will discovers this ruse, but he is loath to lose his "leading man." Moreover, he and Viola fall rapturously in love. Their bliss, however, faces two major barriers: Will is married (though unhappily, and his wife stays in distant Stratford-upon-Avon), and Viola's hand is promised by her father to stuffy Lord Wessex, who plans to sail off with her to the new colony of Virginia as soon as they are wed. This is purely a practical arrangement, common to the era. De Lesseps rises in status by way of his daughter's marriage to a titled nobleman, while Wessex gets access to de Lesseps' money to fund his Virginia gambit. Love is nowhere in the picture, which is anathema to Viola, who early in the play exclaims to her faithful nurse, "I will have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love. Love above all."

Their love and its obstacles inspire Will as he continues work on his play, which bit by bit transforms from the comedy Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter into the tragic Romeo and Juliet. Wrapped around the romance at the core of the narrative is the comical rivalry between Henslowe and Burbage that eventually leads to an all-out brawl, the dour Fennyman's emergence as a stage-struck thespian, Wessex's ham-fisted pursuit of the mystery man who, his is certain, has stolen Viola's heart from him, a boat ride on the Thames, several appearances by Queen Elizabeth herself, who always has the last word on any subject, and a dog. The mix of mayhem, gayety and desperation in this theatrical milieu makes a delightful jewel box on which rests the endearing core love story.

Doug Scholz-Carlson, Great River Shakespeare Festival's artistic director, directs Shakespeare in Love with the sure and steady hand of a conductor whose orchestra is performing a great waltz, keeping the romance of the piece frothy and fun. The play has a large cast, utilizing the entire acting company of Great River Shakespeare Festival, and Scholz-Carlson manages to give each actor the opportunity to have their character shine, without breaking the consistent momentum and comic energy of the whole. The world play and physical comedy are both drawn out adroitly, and Scholz-Carlson's talent as a fight choreographer is also an asset when swords are drawn.

Shakespeare in Love has a cheery original score by Paddy Cunneen, a prolific composer for stage and screen, that provides Elizabethan-era ambience as background, occasionally breaking out to provide dance music. The simple stage design by R. Eric Stone works remarkably well, with a raised platform bearing a curtained proscenium rotating to serve as both the stage and backstage at the Rose Theater, as well as a tavern, the de Lesseps' ballroom, Viola's bedchamber, and other settings. In one sequence, the stage spins continuously, shifting from one perspective to another, creating a delightfully cinematic feel. Rebecca Bernstein's lavish period costumes, Matthew Tibbs' sound design, and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz' lighting design all serve the production well.

Anna Sundberg is a great choice to play Viola, as she exudes the strength and determination of a woman defying the constraints of her society, while able to convey giddy delight in the presence of her two great loves, the theater and Will Shakespeare. Christopher Peltier makes a fine Will, besieged by the ceaseless demands of his producers and looking for shortcuts to sustain him from one crisis to the next, until he is brought blazingly to life when he stumbles upon true love. Peltier and Sundberg have terrific chemistry together, adding credibility to the play's improbably storyline.

Melissa Maxwell is superb in two roles: as Queen Elizabeth, staunch and regal, though not above a cut of low humor, and as the nurse to Viola, frantically trying to protect her mistress from impending scandal. As Lord Wessex, Andrew Carlson conveys such a distastefully smug sense of entitlement that it is plain Viola would not want to marry him even if she had not fallen in love with Will. The rest of the ensemble do wonderful work in what are essentially character parts. Stand-outs include Christopher Gerson as the money-lender Fennyman, Benjamin Boucvalt as self-assured, effete Marlowe, Jonathan Gilliard Daly as the irrepressible Henslowe, and Zach Curtis as his boisterous rival producer Burbage. Shout outs also to Alex Givens as the suave Ned Alleyn, most beloved stage actor of his day, and to Silas Sellnow as a juvenile actor reaching the limit of his ability to play female roles.

Twenty years ago Shakespeare in Love was a joy to see on screen, and it remains a joy on stage today. If anything, its presentation as live theater enhances the essence of the story, which at its heart is a valentine to theater in general, and to the historic crucible—both of which gave rise to the English speaking theater as a major cultural force. Scholz-Carlson and his company of actors, brimming with talent and enthusiasm, make this a joyful time at the theater.

Season 15 of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through August 5, 2018, at the Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona, MN. All's Well that Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare in Love, and Venus in Fur play in rotation, with schedules changing weekly. Tickets for Mainstage productions: $25.00 - $49.00; for the Black Box: $25.00. Discount season passes for all four plays are available. For schedule of performances and other Festival events, and for tickets call 507-474-7900 or go to GRSF.org.

Writer: Lee Hall, based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard; Music: Paddy Cunneen; Director and Fight Choreographer: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Scenic Design: R. Eric Stone; Lighting Design: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Sound Design: Matthew Tibbs; Props Supervisor: Connor M. McEvoy; Music Director: Miriam Scholz-Carlson; Choreography: Brenna Mosser; Dialect Coach: Caroline Amos, Production Manager: Joseph Millett; Stage Manager: Kate Ocker; Assistant Director: Alex Bezdeka; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelsey Bouma; Assistant Costume Designer: Haley Ryan; Assistant Lighting Designer: Marissa Alejandro Diaz; Assistant Sound Designer: Sidney McCarty.

Cast: Caroline Amos (Nol/Valentine/courtier), Benjamin Boucvalt (Kit Marlowe), Evan Bucknam (*Webster), Andrew Carlson (Frees/Wessex,/Master Phillips), Anique Clements (Wabash/Kate/courtier), Jonathan Contreras (Ralph/nurse/courtier); Zach Curtis (Burbage), Jonathan Gillard Daly (Henslowe), Antonio Duke (Robin/Proteus/courtier), Michael Fitzpatrick (Tinsley/Robert de Lesseps/boatman), Leah Gabriel (Peter Tooley/Molly), Christopher Gerson (Fennyman), Alex Givens (Ned Alleyn/Catling/ Lambert), Francis Koll (*Webster), Melissa Maxwell (Queen Elizabeth/Viola's nurse), Christopher Peltier (Will Shakespeare), Silas Sellnow (Sam/Juliet/courtier), Anna Sundberg (Viola de Lesseps), Etta (dog).

* alternating performances

Musicians: David Lee Echelard, Michael Fitzpatrick, Eva Scholz-Carlson, Miriam Scholz-Carlson, Madeline Young.


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