Chicago Theater Review: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (Chicago Shakespeare)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 24, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Can we really separate a creator from his art? Can our sense of Shakespeare feel more real to us than his characters do? These aren’t rhetorical questions: A 1998 screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, Shakespeare in Love takes more liberties than the Bill of Rights ever granted, utterly blurring facts and fiction. Speculative beyond belief, the Oscar-winning film supposedly put us at the genesis of the Bard’s most famous love tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.

Using retro-contrivances and mistaken identities of Olympic proportions, Shakespeare in Love represents a flagrant case of life imitating art (and vice versa). In what could pass for artistic vandalism, Stoppard and Norman imagine that Romeo and Juliet is nothing more than an almost piratical plagiarism: A certain William Shakespeare stole wholesale from everything he heard, said or that happened around him. Genius? Originality? Unstoppable dedication? Nope, just good ears and a rapid pen. (If you want a flawlessly credible recreation of a drama’s debut, you’re safer with Mike Leigh’s 1999 depiction of the origins of The Mikado in his marvelous Topsy-Turvy.)

Both engaging and maddening in Lee Hill’s film-to-play adaptation, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s mainstage offering adds a third dimension to a film’s revisionist fantasy: The aptly named Courtyard Theatre is the Tudor-style setting for a host of lies seeking to tell the truth. An anecdotal anthology—portraying humanity’s once and future greatest playwright—regales us with a hit parade of his greatest lines. They’re gratuitously cherry-picked from the Bard’s best, as if daily conversation in 1593 was nothing less than famous quotes.

Declaimers seem essential: Any enjoyment of this fierce fiction depends entirely on your capacity to suspend disbelief in the face of many, many forced parallels between storyline and “reality”; poetry and plot; wishful thinking and history; make-believe and timelines; and characters (Mistress Quickly, a Nurse) and historical personages (Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, John Webster, even Queen Elizabeth I). “Alternative facts” fuel these 140 minutes like laughing gas. If Rachel Rockwell makes this splendid simulation more than palatable, it’s no less than a fabulous fabrication deserves.

This Shakespeare (Nick Rehberger as the talented trickster) suffers from writer’s block. He’s overdue to deliver a new play horrendously called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. Brawling over the rights to this glutinous script are two Elizabethan companies filled with cloyingly temperamental “artistes,” thespians in full fustian: The Rose Theater, helmed by the dog-loving producer Philip Henslowe (Chicago favorite Larry Yando) and The Curtain, run by the stentorian ham Richard Burbage (Timothy D. Stickney).

Happily, Shakespeare finds an inspiration to replace “Ethel” with “Juliet.” His muse is warm and wily Violet de Lesseps (capricious Kate McGonigle). Unwittingly integrating the Tudor stage as a female imposter named “Thomas Kent,” this wealthy merchant’s daughter and frustrated actor improbably finds herself cast, not as Juliet, but as Romeo. Revealing her identity as the heiress to the great Sir Robert de Lesseps (Jerre Dye), Violet falls in love with her (married) author. Shakespeare forgives the subterfuge and returns the ardor.

Of course, since the course of true love never did run true, obstacles, perhaps too many, must be erected. Violet is engaged to Lord Wessex (Dennis Grimes), a foppish nobleman who intends to take her to his tobacco estate in the new colony of Virginia. A persecuting, puritanical Master of the Revels (Dye), working for the repressive Lord Chamberlain, threatens to close down the Cheapside and Southwark playhouses because of imagined immorality. And the Virgin Queen (imperious Linda Reiter) enters this world, daring Will and “Kit” to write a true tale of love, not just the courtly artificiality that passes as plays. In the ugliest “borrowing” of all, Stoppard and Norman initially pretend that, when the 29-year-old Marlowe is killed in a tavern brawl, he’s really the fall guy for Shakespeare, the real target of the wretched Wessex’s vicious intrigues. (As a comedy, the plot of Shakespeare in Love does itself few favors.)

The rest—opening day of Romeo and Juliet—is literature, if not history. You can’t keep a good Bard down: Supposedly writing between the stiff Two Gentlemen of Verona and the supple Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has found his style, even if love won’t last as long as his scripts. It’s all good fun, or so we’re to take this concoction.

Except that a writer as worthy as Stoppard needn’t minimize the actual achievement of a Stratford lad made good. In spirit if not content, Shakespeare in Love is not so different from those arrogant snobs who say the Earl of Essex wrote these 37 plays, not a certain William Shakespeare about whom we know more than about most of his contemporaries.

Happily, with all its unforced fun, this two-act travesty isn’t that radical, just very calculated. The 21-member cast is an absolute delight, including a hilarious dog named Dash playing a mutt named Spot (as in “Out, out, damn Spot!”) It’s easy to enjoy Navy Pier’s industrial-strength charmer with contagious delight—but also at a risk. By making Shakespeare nothing more than a skilled recorder and reactor to a life that’s his real work of art, Stoppard and Norman trivialize treasure. It’s all a tad denigrating and disrespectful. The sheer feat of Romeo and Juliet, a play that rose above every occasion, beats any bogus “in-jokes” and pre-determined pandering to a modern audience.

photos by Liz Lauren

Shakespeare in Love
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier
ends on June 11, 2017
for tickets, call 312.595.5600 or visit Chicago Shakes

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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