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Shakespeare in Love

An adaptation of the beloved film is turned into an antic ode to the theater.

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George Olesky and Jennifer Ellis star in Shakespeare in Love, directed by Scott Edmiston, at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
(© Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

Although William Shakespeare penned the line "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," he was well known for filching plotlines and characters wherever he could find them. Playwright Lee Hall one-upped him in devising a throbbing comedy of a play based on the 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love that is dedicated to the folks who spend their lives onstage. Hall's adaptation had its premiere in London in 2014, but the play is currently one of the most produced works in regional U.S. theaters.

Shakespeare in Love, the theatrical version, is set at locales in and around London, including both the Rose and the Curtain playhouses, the ballroom of Viola de Lesseps's home and her bedchamber, and various taverns and bawdy houses. For the Boston premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company, a cast of 18 actors, many of whom double in the roles and populate the milling crowds on the streets and among the audience, change costumes and characters so quickly that the scenes seem to melt together. Director Scott Edmiston makes good use of Jenna McFarland Lord's re-creation of a multilevel Elizabethan playhouse, adding the Wimberly Theater balconies as additional playing spaces in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.

The main character is the young Will Shakespeare, whose quill has gone dry, as he puts it, while writing a play entitled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. Will is in trouble because he owes scripts to both Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose, and his rival, Richard Burbage, actor and owner of the Curtain. Luckily, his friend Kit (Christopher) Marlowe is there at his elbow, prompting the lines and Shakespeare's imagination. Will falls in love with the wealthy Viola de Lesseps, who wants to perform onstage where women are forbidden, first meeting her at auditions for his play disguised as Thomas Kent, an aspiring actor, then spying her as a young woman at a ball. She becomes his muse and lover, even though they both know the match is impossible. Viola is promised to the wretched Lord Wessex, but falls hard for Will. The play within this play becomes Romeo and Juliet, with various connections between their affair and the tragedy.

Edmiston has assembled a perfect cohort of actors to play the roles, which include actual historical figures such as Burbage (a ferocious Omar Robinson), Henslowe (the sunny but often baffled Ken Baltin), Ned Allenyn (Jesse Hinson, brimming with life force as Mercutio), a young John Webster (Cameron Beaty Gosselin), and Queen Elizabeth I (Nancy E. Carroll, playing the monarch with a weary been-there, seen-that air). George Olesky makes an appealing, feisty young lover as Shakespeare; and Eddie Shields as an effete but hilarious Marlowe threatens to steal the show, despite competition from a clever dog, brought on to please the Queen, we are told.

The play includes several fictional characters as well. Jennifer Ellis plays an engaging Viola, especially fetching in the breeches role; funnyman Remo Airaldi plays Fennyman, the money guy at the Rose and an aspiring thespian; Lewis D. Wheeler plays the self-aggrandizing Wessex, endowed with a title but an empty purse; and a hearty Carolyn Saxon plays the Nurse.

With period costumes designed by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, period choreography by Judith Chaffee, fight direction by Ted Hewlett, and music by David Reiffel that sounds like the Elizabethan model, the production spreads out with all the elements of spectacle, across the antic procession of scenes.

Shakespeare in Love, accessible and adorable, might be characterized as decaf Bard for viewers afraid of tasting the real stuff, but given this production's expert direction, countless laugh lines, and memorable performances, it makes for a tasty evening of live theater. What more could we groundlings want?

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