Shakespeare in Love

By Philip Pearce

THERE ARE THINGS we can be pretty sure really happened to a 16th century Englishman named William Shakespeare. There are things that might just possibly have really happened to him. And there are things that couldn’t possibly have ever happened to him.

Tom Stoppard, working with collaborators Lee Hall and Marc Norman, combines those ingredients in an irresistible romantic confection called Shakespeare in Love, now on display in a Pacific Rep production at the outdoor Forest Theater. 

Much of the charm of the first act is that Will starts the evening as anything but an up- and-coming London literary star. He’s a floundering wage-earner struggling against a major roadblock (“My quill is broken, my well is dry”) in his obligation to churn out scripts for London’s busy Rose Theatre. 

At work in his garret, we see him surrounded by spectral figures of all the producers, directors, actors and designers currently bugging him to come up with enough pages of script for auditioning a new comedy he has working titled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter without as yet producing a line of action or dialogue. Will has temporarily abandoned Romeo and Ethel in favor of a love poem but he can’t write that any farther than “Shall I compare thee to a…” till his idol and mentor Christopher Marlowe sensibly suggests he compare the lady to a summer’s day. (“…Lovely, temperate and thoroughly trite. Gives you somewhere to go.”) 

In Stoppard and Company’s crazy quilt plot, Marlowe later goes on to improvise the entire text of the poem, which Will blithely steals and publishes as his own best-known sonnet. It’s that kind of show. As a playwright, Stoppard thumbs his nose at social stereotyped and hi-falutin’ literary clichés, but always as a benign  court jester,  never a pontificating expert. 

Patrick Andrew Jones is an appealingly reflective Will, expert in the recitation of Shakespearean text and wooing style, though I sometimes missed the white-hot desperation Stoppard and Company have written into his early struggles to recapture his muse. 

All of that changes when Will falls head-over foolscap in love with a wildly romantic aristocratic ingenue named Viola de Lesseps. Jennifer Le Blanc rhapsodizes and bubbles gloriously as this dynamic blonde who wins his heart and relights his burnt-out creative sparks. Dauntlessly stage-struck, she defies custom and morality by putting on doublet, hose and a brown moustache to become a hardworking Elizabethan actor she calls Thomas Kent and who gets cast (wait for it) as Rome.

The deception fools even Will Shakespeare for a while. He meets the undisguised Viola by crashing a Capulet-style ball her parents are throwing to push her into an unwelcome marriage to an annoying piece of landed gentry named Wessex, played with untiring venom and pomposity by Justin Gordon. Once they are married he plans to travel west with her to exploit the riches of the new world in the Colony of Virginia. Virginia did not actually exist until 25 years after the premier of Romeo and Juliet, but, hey, this is romantic comedy not literary history. 

There’s effective Elizabethan dancing throughout the action, choreographed by Jill Miller, as well as plenty of fine period instrumental and vocal music organized by Lindsey Schmeltzer. As always, director Kenneth Kelleher and set designer Patrick McEvoy keep the action of this Oscar-winning film adaptation brisk, fluid and cinematic. 

Engagement be damned, Shakespeare’s wooing of Viola moves into sequences that parallel but parody events he will later polish up and incorporate in a full-fledged play text of Romeo and Juliet. A clunky balcony scene finds him tongue tied without pen and ink but getting prompts from unseen, real-life buddy Marlowe, turning the whole event into more of a Cyrano style three-header than a Capulet garden duet.

Bare bones summary doesn’t do justice to the playful surprises and inventiveness of the Stoppard-Lee-Norman plot and dialogue. Where there’s a comic opportunity to echo some familiar piece of Shakespeare wordage, wherever it comes from, the writers snap it up. When Will’s producer boss Henslowe, played with rollicking desperation by D Scott McQuiston, begs yet again for some sides of manuscript and Will yet again promises he will have them first thing tomorrow, the jaded producer exits, muttering, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”  In the role of Queen Elizabeth I, Donna Federico (who doubles delightfully as Viola’s ditsy but diplomatic Nurse) dismisses the wonderful Howard Burnham’s overbearingly Puritan Lord Chamberlain Tilney from her royal presence in the same words Olivia is going to use  to puncture Malvolio’s balloon in Twelfth Night. When the charming and forceful Ben Muller as the murdered Marlowe makes a final appearance in closing moments of the play, Will blurts out “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” like Hamlet meeting his father’s ghost. 

It’s fun watching an actor like Burnham make three stuffed shirt characters as interesting as they are unlike one another. And to see the ever energetic James Brady’s change from a mean-spirited enemy of British theater to a simpering stage-door Johnny as he experiences the dynamics of a rehearsal and accepts a walk-on role he does everything possible to build up. Patrick McEvoy and Matthew Reich strut and fret their moments on the stage with the bravado and zip of a pair of rival Elizabethan matinee idols named Richard Burbage and Ned Alleyn. 

Then there’s the key scene where Will finally penetrates Viola’s Thomas Kemt disguise  by sharing a ride with her in a Thames River barge oared by Mike Baker.  Baker and the authors contrive to play the Boatman as a foreshadowing of one of those present-day London taxi drivers who boast about the stage celebs who’ve occupied their cabs and wonder if you’d have a quick read of the screenplay they’ve been writing between fares. 

There are neat dialogue borrowings and there are Shakespearean “in” jokes a plenty which they had small knots of last weekend’s Forest Theater patrons tittering appreciatively. It’s fun to recognize that the nasty little boy, played with piping relish by Dean Bullas as he hangs around the theater spying on the misbehaviors of cast members and only likes the parts of R and J where people get gored to death with fencing swords, is named John Webster—who will go on to write some of the most blood-soaked Jacobean horror plays of the upcoming decade. 

All of that said, with this play and production, you never need to regret that you haven’t taken the time to Brush Up Your Shakespeare in advance. The characters are vivid and their relationships snap, crackle and pop as clearly and brightly as any Tracy vs. Hepburn romcom you care to name. 


For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday

By Philip Pearce

WATCHING MY WAY through Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday last Saturday, I wasn’t always certain what was happening on stage but I didn’t let that affect the steady pleasure I felt in watching it happen.

Then in the cold light of the morning after, I think I got the point and liked that too.

The central figure is based on Ruhl’s mother, an actress who played the lead in many a community theater version of Peter Pan back in the Mary Martin era. Ruhl dedicates the script to this tireless, charismatic trouper and the radiant and delightful Suzanne Sturn plays her to the hilt in the strange but fascinating production that has just opened in Western Stage’s Studio Theater.  

Her name is Ann, which rhymes, of course, with Pan, and acting Barrie’s boy hero has been the central reality of Ann’s theatrical life, a fact that has spilled over into the lives of her four siblings, three of whom are either named after, or in some way actually are, characters from Barrie’s story, only about fifty years older. 

The three men and their two sisters show up first around the deathbed of their father. They move on to toast his passing at an informal family wake, where they drink and argue politics and religion with a ferocious affection that’s sometimes like the Darlings at bedtime in England, sometimes like the lost boys of Neverland. “We’re orphans now!” one of them comments, a few moments after their father dies.

This one-for-all and all-for-one crew are played by some of this area’s most gifted actors. It’s been far too long since I’ve watched and admired Ron Genauer, here a forceful and funny sixty-something Michael.  As his top-hatted and opinionated kid brother John, Fred Herro has never been better. Mindy Pedlar proves that Wendy can remain a loving, enchantingly bossy big sister even into her sixties. And there’s an added sibling named Jim, played with a lot of cheerful wit and determination by the versatile Carl Twisselman, who later suits up in hook and eyepatch as a comically fearsome Captain Hook when the setting changes to Neverland. That adventure turns out to be tough going for a family group with backaches and metal walkers.   

The direction, shared by Nina Capriola and Jeffrey T Heyer, is masterful in the clarity with which it establishes each of the characters and their inter-relationships while also moving the action smoothly through some surprising shifts and permutations. Clearly, this is a script marked by its freewheeling variety and nonchalant willingness to change the mood and genre and attitude from solid realism to wild fantasy. The wake is peppered with informed references to real political figures and conflicts of the Clinton years. But when everyone decides to returns to Neverland are we in a dream sequence? An alternative universe? You decide. 

This refusal to settle on a distinctive genre or a consistent style of storytelling are what drew fire from a number of critics of the original New York production. Personally, I think the hops, skips and jumps are what surprised and pleased me about this strange tale. And the contrasting sequences, for me, are a part of the play’s central theme: whatever magic Peter Pan weaves around it, you finally do have to grow up.  

Well past their half century marks, this cluster of siblings has stuck together since childhood with the determination of a street gang. They have tribal songs and slogans for every occasion: “When the Saints,” the Beatles’ “Love, Love, Love.” At one point, they even join in a collective home team cheer of “I’ll never grow up! I‘ll Never Grow Up!” 

But each of these three brothers has a successful medical career to manage, and each, like their sister Wendy, heads up a home and household elsewhere. There are spouses, children and grandkids who are waiting in the wings, but they only get a brief passing mention. What has always glued the five of them together is that alluring theatrical dream of big-sister-in-green-tights organizing a perpetual childhood. It’s a wistful and charming idea, but it can’t last forever. 

So, at the boozy family wake after his funeral, their late father, played with a brooding and spooky deadpan authority by Tom Hepner, keeps showing up as awkwardly as Banquo’s ghost and trying to grab a place at the table and a part in the conversation. When Wendy floats the idea that Jesus and God are possibly just metaphors but Santa Claus is real, her dead father glides in wearing an ill-fitting Santa Claus hat. When Ann recalls the trauma of euthanizing a favorite family dog, father brings in the late lamented Chihuahua, played with dignify by Scamper, who lives with co-director Jeffrey T Heyer and his wife Nancy Bernhard. In a final bid for attention, father smashes a cup, which startles but fails to enlighten the drinkers. He’s asking for an end to that “Never Grow Up!” dream but as yet nobody is listening.  

In the end, the boys and Wendy finally get the message and leave Ann for their real world responsibilities. She, in turn, comes to understand that, for her, growing up means abandoning Peter and the green tights and entering the new reality of death and the unexplored territory of life afterward. 

Looking back across the story line, the family discussions at the bedside, the hijinks of the funeral wake and the disappointing return to Neverland become father’s object lessons in the futility of frolicking forever in the playground when you’re old and living in a world full of grown-up contradictions and terrors.

For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday continues at the Studio Theater on the Hartnell campus through September 29th.