By Gwendolyn Kochur
“Playwrights teach us nothing about love,” argues Queen Elizabeth to her court. “They make it pretty, they make it comical, or they make it lust, but they cannot make it true.”
Cleveland Play House’s “Shakespeare In Love” may just prove her wrong. The show is both stunningly pretty and fiercely comical (with no shortage of lust), and within the first act, Cleveland Play House will have you falling in love with their production that nears perfection.
When Will Shakespeare also known as The Bard (Charlie Thurston) is lacking inspiration for his next play, he finds creative muse in Viola de Lesseps (Marina Shay), a high-society lady who loves the theater. Because of laws forbidding women on stage, Viola fulfills her dream of becoming a player by dressing as a man, Thomas Kent, and auditioning for The Bard’s next play. When Will casts Thomas as his leading man, Viola struggles to maintain her disguise while harboring her feelings for the playwright, and as Will pursues Viola, he begins writing what could become his most successful play.
“Shakespeare In Love” is based on the wildly successful film of the same name, which won seven Oscars at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The 1998 screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard was adapted for the stage by Lee Hall. It is now on The Allen stage under the careful direction of Laura Kepley, who artfully balances romance, comedy, swordfights and even the occasional musical interlude to create a production that is as beautiful as it is harmonious.
Shay as Viola commands the words of the Bard beautifully and her recitation of Shakespearean language is absolutely enthralling. Thurston’s performance as the charming and extremely likable Will is equally as captivating. These two have a wonderful dynamic that allows their romance and sexual tension to drive the show. One of their greatest moments being when Will instructs Viola how to kiss while she is dressed as a man.
Much like Thurston and Shay, the rest of the cast is remarkably talented. Andhy Mendez is excellent as Will’s amiable writer friend Kit Marlow and Brian Owen is hilarious as the perverse Burbage. Nervous theater owner Henslowe (Donald Carrier), investor Fennyman (Evan Zes) and the feisty John Webster (a young Tommy Bilczo) all have stand out performances.
A set of stairs branches up from each side of the stage and connects to a central catwalk, allowing for passage above and below. Exquisitely detailed furniture, such as a writing desk, bar, four-poster bed and even the catwalk itself are seamlessly maneuvered across the stage by the actors.
Doubling as both scenic and costume designer, Lex Liang dresses the cast in billowy shirts, vests, and flowing dresses, while largely maintaining an earth-tone color palate. The mixture of patterns and colors is a truly beautiful visual. Likewise, the lighting design by Russell H. Champa accentuates the players with purples, blues and pinks, with more fanciful lighting provided by lanterns and candles. Coupled with a hazing effect, the stage exudes a fairy-tale romance feel.
Sound designer and composer Jane Shaw and musical director Nathan Motta both contribute music reminiscent of the Elizabethan era, employing the use of an on-stage drummer and strolling musicians.
Thanks to an incredible creative collaboration, just as Viola and Will fall deeper in love with one another, the audience will fall deeper in love with Cleveland Play House’s “Shakespeare In Love.”