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Shakespeare in Love
Palo Alto Players
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Frost/Nixon

Drew Benjamin Jones
Photo by Joyce Goldschmid
"Shall I compare ... compare the ... compare thee ... to something, something ... a mourner's play?"

A young William Shakespeare struggles to find the word—any word—to start his latest sonnet. Only after a whispered "summer's day" comes from his best pal and more popular playwright than he, Kit Marlowe, does his inspiration begin to kick in (especially as Kit continues to prod with more choice words and lines to write the required, fourteen lines).

Every writer certainly has a slump from time to time, but Will's current one is bigger than Falstaff's belly. He is fiercely searching for a new muse in his life, someone who can save him from yet another lame comedy about pirates and their dogs. That his inspiration will arrive as a young woman of wealth—one betrothed by her father to a Lord, but one who is desperate to be on the stage, which is forbidden by English law—is just the kind of set-up any young playwright might die a thousand deaths to have. Certainly it worked well for Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard as the backbone for their 1998 Academy Award winning film Shakespeare in Love, and it is a tantalizing backdrop for the play by the same name. Adapted to the stage by Lee Hall, Shakespeare in Love is now playing at Palo Alto Players where the large cast of twenty-one (plus one cute dog named Lucille) enthusiastically and with evident joy present a play within a play.

Shakespeare in Love takes us back to the late sixteenth century as the playwright-in-the-making, still early in his career, is looking for an advance for his next play from one (or actually both) of London's rival, thespian troupes. He is also in a frantic search for a new idea to write about as a follow-up to his recent hit, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The Queen (as in Elizabeth) has requested a play with a dog in it, and the theatre entrepreneur Henslowe has hired him to write a comedy entitled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. But Kit Marlowe keeps pumping him with ideas about a love story of the son and daughter of two rival Italian families—a story that is destined to be as tragic as it is beautiful.

That story begins to play out in real life when Will meets Viola De Lesseps after sneaking into a party her father is giving in honor of her expected engagement to Lord Wessex—a union she has no interest in making. What Viola does want to do is to fall in love with the handsome playwright she on the sly kisses (and much more) at her engagement-announcement party. And she is determined to be in Will's upcoming play, law or no law.

To do the latter, she dresses with wig and false mustache as a new actor in town named Thomas Kent and lands the lead role of someone called Romeo in Will's play—one he writes as the two secret lovers live the developing script day by day (actually night by night), with new pages guiding both rehearsals and their making of love. All the while, even though Will keeps promising the impatient Henslowe that a happy ending (and maybe a pirate or two) is coming, everything in the emerging script and in his own life begins to point otherwise.

Drew Benjamin Jones brings a free, spontaneous, and daring spirit to his role as Will Shakespeare. In the beginning, he is clearly stuck in the doldrums of no inspiration, running into London's alleys and dark corners to avoid the demands of two theatre producers (Henslowe and Burbage), both of whom have already given him advances for the new pirate play he increasingly has no intention of writing. Once he meets Viola, a forbidden kiss leads to a flow of iambic pentameter lines that spill from the ink of his feathered pen with inspired excellence—lines that no longer need Marlowe's prompting of suggested words (Marlowe being played by a debonair, easily likeable Brad Satterwhite). Mr. Jones gives us a boy-becoming-man version of The Bard that is refreshing and fun and much like a role we might find in one of his future romantic comedies.

April Culver takes on the roles of Thomas the actor, Viola the aristocrat, and Viola the lover with varying degrees of success. At times, her lines as Romeo or her sentiments as Viola are delivered with too little nuance of tone, volume or inflection. At other times, she is much more adept and convincing, especially as the proudly resistant, betrothed Viola as she defies face-to-face the barking demands of her fiancé, Lord Wessex (played with nose-in-the-air snobbery and total chauvinistic callousness by Jeff Clarke). As Viola the lover, the sparks between the pair are not as convincing on either part, with the electricity between them rarely going beyond a few sparks to a full sizzle.

Most disappointing for both is the final scene of their performed Romeo and Juliet where both as lovers and actors they have a chance to play a final scene that is moving on two levels (theatrical and real life). Unfortunately, the scene as played out on the stage's floor of the two dying lovers lacks the emotional impact that is called for by both the play within the play about Romeo and Juliet and the main play itself about Will and Viola.

However, as in many in the Bard's canon of plays, the minor, lower-class characters of Palo Alto Players' Shakespeare in Love are memorably delicious and delightful. David Blackburn is time and again hilarious as a tall, lanky Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre, whose body bends, twists, and doubles up in his impatience for the pirate play with a dog he has been promised by his pal Will. His voice is often like a ride on a rollercoaster as it rises and falls, dips and twirls while he ties to persuade Will to ensure that the tragedy-in-the-making has a happy ending.

Thomas Times softens the rough persona of the rival theatre producer Burbage, who with bombastic blustery is ready to thwart the planned production at the Rose, to prove that the union of actors is even stronger than the drive to secure one's own packed house. David Paigen is a stammering tailor/wannabe actor Wabash, who wins both the hearts of his fellow thespians and ours as he steps forward to be an unlikely star on stage. Doll Piccotto is a snarly Queen Elizabeth who shows wry wit and much wisdom in opposing the plans of her crusading, religiously fervorous Master of Revels, Tilney (Shawn Andrei), who only wants to close all of London's theatres. Seton Chiang is the flamboyant and fanciful actor Ned Alleyn; Kyle Dayrit, the appropriately sweet and effeminate actor Sam who is slated to be Juliet; and Kristen Hall, the impish troublemaker Webster who does all he can to destroy the very stage where he is dying to be.

But the actor who takes a series of small roles and makes them really zing is Todd Wright. Whether as Robin the actor who dresses as Juliet's mother, a talkative boatman who hopes Will might read his foot-thick manuscript, or a father who only wants his daughter married and shipped off to Virginia, Mr. Wright's myriad of funny, facial gymnastics are a riot to watch. With an opened mouth that becomes shapes impossible to describe, eyes that sparkle with spirit, and awkward dance moves that speak volumes about his character's big desire to try hard to do well, Todd Wright alone makes the evening's ticket price a bargain.

Scott Ludwig has designed a two-level stage setting that serves well as the rough interior of the Rose but also reminds us of a soon-to-be-built Globe, especially with the shadowed ivy on its walls that becomes the palette for much of Edward Hunter's excellent lighting design. Jeff Grafton's choices of sound intervals and effects add to establishing the period, as does the music Lauren Bevilacqua has chosen for the ongoing interludes of Elizabethan-style tunes that punctuate the production throughout. Patricia Tyler's costumes provide both a sense of authenticity to the ragamuffin group of actors as well as to the aristocratic society from which Viola comes.

Lee Ann Payne directs the large cast and the multiple scenes, giving special care to transitions where our attention is nicely diverted from scenic piece changes (some of which occur with a bit too much cumbersome effort and noise). However, one directorial/sound issue that occurs several times throughout the production is that a character's lines—including more than once those of Viola—are delivered facing away from the audience and are lost in part or total.

Lee Hall's adaptation of the Norman/Stoppard screenplay emphasizes even more than the original film the determination of one woman to forge a place on the world's stage—or at least on London's—for talented actors of her sex. We as audience cannot help but be thrilled by the stand this fictional feminist of sorts takes in the stead of all the women who did dare to make their historic ways onto the forbidden stage. Brava and bravo to Viola and to Lee Hall as well as to Palo Alto Players for this entertaining, educating Shakespeare in Love.

Shakespeare in Love, through February 3, 2019, at Palo Alto Players Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available at or by calling 650-329-0891.