Reviewed by Katherine Damisch
For some reason, legend-like stories about William Shakespeare’s life have captured the imaginations of audiences in the past few years. Whether the Reduced Shakespeare Company is reviving the Bard’s (alleged and abridged) Long Lost First Play, Broadway smells Something Rotten, or he remains Anonymous on the silver screen, Shakespeare has gone one quite a few adventures lately! After all, such a brilliant man must have led a brilliant life, right? But what if he was more ordinary: just a struggling artist with a case of writer’s block?
Enter Shakespeare in Love, stage adaption of the 1998 film. When we meet our Bard, played with exuberance by Nick Rehberger, he is agonizing over his next big project, the amusingly titled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. His inspiration returns when he meets Viola, a beautiful young woman with a passion for theatre who auditions for the play in drag (as women were not allowed to be actors), and the two begin a fiery romance. Kate McGonigle brings Viola to life, balancing youthful liveliness with the humor of the awkwardness of her situation. While the entire cast gave solid performances, as is typical on the Chicago Shakespeare stage, Luigi Sottile gifted the audience with a hilariously flamboyant portrayal of Ned Alleyn, another actor in the Romeo project. Ben Affleck originated the role memorably in the film, but Sottile strutted circles around him without going overboard.
The set design hit the sweet spot of hinting at opulence while not spending a fortune on large, ornate pieces. Instead, Scenic Designer Scott Davis opted for one major piece (pillars and a staircase holding up a balcony) that rotated on a turntable, and swapped out smaller set pieces to indicate location. The effect worked beautifully, transporting the story seamlessly from ballroom to brothel in the blink of an eye. While not a musical, the stage version added several songs that were executed by the cast with precision. In fact, there were moments when major cast members sang so flawlessly that one can be forgiven for questioning whether this should have been a musical! However, no matter how one categorizes this piece Shakespeare in Love keeps the life of the Bard fresh, funny, and romantic...which is most likely precisely how he would have wanted it.