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.