Kate McGonigle as Viola de Lesseps and Nick Rehberger as Will Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love, directed by Rachel Rockwell, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Kate McGonigle as Viola de Lesseps and Nick Rehberger as Will Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love, directed by Rachel Rockwell, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
(© Liz Lauren)

Chicago Shakespeare's production of Shakespeare in Love doesn't stray too far from its inspiration, the 1998 film, and why should it? That film, written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, won six Oscars including Best Picture, and helped cement Gwyneth Paltrow as a bona fide star. Of course, translating on-screen magic to the stage takes care and finesse, and it's a relief to see that this staging, helmed by director Rachel Rockwell, hits the mark.

Lee Hall's adaptation opens with a theatrical spotlight on struggling playwright Will Shakespeare (Nick Rehberger), snarled in a wicked case of writers' block. His latest commissioned play is a month behind schedule, and he can't even finish a sonnet without the help of his friend and fellow poet Kit Marlowe (Michael Perez). Cajoled by his desperate producer Henslowe (Larry Yando), Shakespeare holds auditions for his as-yet-unwritten play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. Viola de Lesseps (Kate McGonigle), a wealthy merchant's daughter, is enamored of Shakespeare's plays and dons a male disguise and passes herself off as "Thomas Kent" in order to audition. Shakespeare is impressed by Thomas Kent and casts him as Romeo, unaware that he is a woman, and therefore banned from the stage.

When Shakespeare eventually lays eyes on Viola in her true form, his writers' block is banished, replaced by the inspiring power of True Love. Endless obstacles hinder the star-crossed lovers, including Viola's engagement to the disdainful Lord Wessex (Dennis Grimes, in a haughty comic turn), and as their love grows complicated, their play shifts from comedy to tragedy.

Rehberger and McGonigle make a lovely pair onstage, whether they're whispering sweet nothings or rehearsing a swordfight. Rehberger excels at all the physical comedy that director Rachel Rockwell throws his way, often alongside the charming and capable Perez as Marlowe. Despite the impressive efforts of wig designer Richard Jarvie, McGonigle is never quite believable as a man, but she is certainly believable as a young woman in love. Larry Yando and Ron E. Rains have great fun as Henslowe and Fennyman, the producer and reluctant financier of Shakespeare's latest production. Other standouts in the 20-person ensemble include Nathaniel Braga as the young player Sam, and Luigi Sottile as Ned Alleyn, the swaggering star actor. And never say that 21st-century audiences are too sophisticated to be charmed by a bit with a dog: a scruffy brown newcomer named Dash steals every scene he's in.

Not unlike the way Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter meanders its way from a comedy to a tragedy over the course of rehearsals, Shakespeare in Love is a play caught between genres. It's not a musical, but it sure feels like one. There are at least a dozen moments when the players seem a hair's-breadth away from breaking into song or dance, and when they don't, it's somewhat anticlimactic. And then there's the music itself. The play is heavily scored with original music by Neil Bartram, usually piped in through speakers. Perhaps if it were all played live onstage, it would have come together, but as it was, the tinny tunes fall short.

Other than the musical misstep, Shakespeare in Love is a great technical success. Chicago Shakespeare's Court Theater space is perfectly filled by Scott Davis's set, a fine rotating piece that allows the perspective to effortlessly glide from play-within-a-play performances to backstage high jinks. Susan E. Mickey's costumes are sumptuous and very flattering to the talented cast. The swordplay, choreographed by Matt Hawkins, is a pleasure to watch, whether it's meant to evoke a real brawl or onstage showmanship.

This Shakespeare in Love is heartfelt and beautiful, sure to be a hit with romantics, whether they love the 1998 film, admire the sonnets of Shakespeare, or simply want to be transported by love for a night.