By Patrick O’Brien
Give Chicago Shakespeare Theater this much credit: It takes brass for such a renowned institution to allow a scene that suggests old Bill didn’t write his immortal Sonnet 18 — or a good number of his works — without a fair amount of “help.” Shakespeare In Love, currently playing in the Courtyard, attributes at least half of that sonnet to his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, the man himself tongue-tied by infatuation.
Two years after this stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film made its world premiere, new scholarship would, in fact, suggest that a Shakespeare/Marlowe collaboration was not only possible, but also that such co-authorship was par for the course for the Elizabethan theater scene, a heady and volatile mix of writer-actor-producers who would just as soon snipe each other’s players and contracts as they would toss each other saving revisions. If this research proves Shakespeare was not the Almighty Pen of God, it at least brings with it a reassuring ordinariness: god, genius, or just gifted, Shakespeare lived, loved, scrimped and improvised as much as any mortal.
Shakespeare in Love has it a little more extravagantly than that—he probably dealt with fewer swordfights—but one can dream. Freely and without pretense turning historical fiction into historical fantasy, Chicago favorite Rachel Rockwell—armed with Lee Hall’s script, adapted from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s lauded screenplay, award winners all—aims squarely at those dreamers. “[A la Amadeus,] none of this happened, but we want to believe that it could have,” Rockwell notes.
Does the play score a direct hit?
Isn’t that the question.
Certainly, the players earn high marks, especially the central pair: Will (Nick Rehberger) winningly and manically in pursuit of the winsome noblewoman Viola de Lesseps (Kate McGonigle), disguising herself as a man to play in the Bard’s all-male company. Both resourceful, both whip-smart, both escaping loveless marriages, their star-crossed romance transforms his unfortunate (and overdue) comedy Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter into…just guess.
Michael Perez swaggers delightfully as Will’s cocksure frenemy Marlowe. Larry Yando, another Chicago favorite, is a particular delight as Will’s doddering producer, himself madly improvising his way out from under his financier’s thumb. Replicating Judi Dench’s film role, Linda Reiter as Queen Elizabeth nearly walks away with the whole play on 10 minutes’ worth of stage time.
And Hall’s script really clicks in the players’ scenes, everyone strutting with ego and yet burning with a genuine desire to achieve something lasting. Given Hall’s affinity for working-class artists, previously on display in Billy Elliot, this is no great surprise.
Shakespeare In Love, however, lacks something. It isn’t the love; everyone’s striving for love and craft is palpable. And it isn’t the Shakespeare, necessarily; his words are amply represented.
Perhaps it’s a genuine love of Shakespeare that’s missing.
The play’s sense of humor levels out with callbacks to Shakespeare’s works, usually very obvious ones. For instance, there is a troublesome terrier named Spot, who occasionally must be shooed away. “Out, damned Spot,” cries the intemperate Richard Burbage (Timothy D. Stickney). Two acts, two hours of that. It has the unshakeable pall of superficial historical fiction, the kind where all the famous players of the age are assembled together and rattle off their most famous quotes in their small-talk.
It’s not enough that Shakespeare achieved transcendence far beyond the boundaries of his humble station, but here, everything he did and said becomes transcendent. But what happens when everything is transcendent?
The scene in which Will and Kit completely winging “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…” is indeed funny, and in being so ordinary—one guy helping another court a woman—becomes charming. The play—not Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits—is truly the thing.
Everyone will enjoy the dog, though. Even the queen loved dogs in her plays.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents “Shakespeare in Love” through June 11 plays until June 11th at the Courtyard Theatre on Navy Pier, 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.