"Shakespeare in Love," the romantic dramedy adapted from the celebrated 1998 film into a stage play, receives a beautiful and authentic-feeling staging at Ohio Shakespeare Festival.
The spirited cast of 20, led by real-life husband and wife Joe Pine as Will Shakespeare and Tess Burgler as his muse, Viola DeLesseps, is directed by Nancy Cates on the theater's two-story Elizabethan playhouse-style set. It's a permanent fixture that's perfect for telling the story of Shakespeare's younger days as a struggling playwright.
Set in 1593 London, it starts out with Will suffering from severe writer's block and rival playwright and friend Kit Marlowe (Lara Mielcarek) offering him advice. The wealthy young Viola DeLesseps, who has Shakespeare's plays memorized, is so passionate about the theater, she disguises herself as Thomas Kent to audition for Will's new play, "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter."
Comedy ensues as Will finds himself inexplicably attracted to "Thomas" at the same time that he has met and fallen for the beautiful Viola at a ball. The playwright soon discovers Viola's ruse and these lovers are quickly drawn together through their mutual passion for poetry and drama.
In this story of gender bending, it's delightful to see that Cates has cast multiple women in men's roles — the exact opposite of what happened in Elizabethan times, when women were banned from performing in the theater. This ban is exactly what frustrates the intelligent Viola so much, she takes a big risk to perform as a man.
Ohio Shakespeare Festival has featured women in key roles in the past, and it works. Among the funniest female actors playing men are the dry-humored Lenne Snively as the ne'er-do-well producer Henslowe and pint-sized Elise Pakiela as the pesky, overly eager, street urchin John Webster.
Maya Nicholson also plays henchman Lambert, Katie Zarecki plays actor Peter and tiny Sarah Caley of the pixie haircut plays Sam, which works well as that character portrays Juliet in the play within the play.
Soon, Will's art begins to reflect his life — namely his secret love affair with Viola — and his play changes from his original plan for a comedy. He and Viola are star-crossed lovers, as she is wealthy and he a lowly, penniless playwright.
Pine and Burgler create a a beautiful love scene onstage in Viola's bed chamber, complete with their recitation of the Bard's newest pages.
In this show, which was adapted by Lee Hall and remains true to the film by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, it's a joy to see the Bard's words come to life on stage. It's also great fun to hear some of his most famous lines used in different, comical contexts.
Amiee Collier does a thoroughly humorous turn as Viola's earthy nurse, who helps her out of more than one scrape in her double life. Collier's dog, Buckley, also is a delight as stage dog Spot, complete with Elizabethan collar.
Holly Humes is gorgeous, pouty and regal as Queen Elizabeth I, who repeats the running gag "We do love a dog." Ryan Zarecki also makes the most of his smaller role as the egotistical Ned Alley.
Burgler creates a clear characterization as Viola, a modern woman whose ultimate happiness falls victim to the social norms of the times. This play offers it all, though — a tragic element, adventure, high romance, swordfighting, giddy comedy and the joy of inspiration.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.