A play taken from a movie—that wasn’t even a terribly great movie—doesn’t seem to have much to recommend it, but Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard not only rescued the story from Shakespeare in Love, they lifted it and made it hilarious, and the resulting fast-paced physical comedy provides the perfect antidote to the current woes of the world.
And this might just be the best performance of a particularly stellar season at the Cape Rep Theatre.
Seriously: Cape Rep gets it pitch-perfect. This is one of the funniest plays ever, and everyone is bringing their A game, from director Maura Hanlon to fight choreographer Margaret Clark to dialect coach Alison Weller.
Shakespeare in Love isn’t really about a romance between two people—in fact, the relationship between Will (Nick Nudler) and his Juliet, Viola de Lesseps (Lindsey Erin Agnes), is the weakest part of the production. This is a broader love letter about a romance with the theatre itself, an affair with the power and beauty of words, a struggle between the capitalist necessity of having art financed and the sheer need for the art itself, a billet doux to the magic and mystery that happen onstage. That’s where the passion lies in this play, and that is where Hanlon has wisely placed the emphasis.
And it does, of course, leave audiences questioning whether much has changed. Financiers still hold the reins of power, scripts are rewritten to suit politics, egos have to be satisfied, and there’s nearly always a last-minute crisis in any production. Still, it can all turn out all right in the end: “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter” can transform into “Romeo and Juliet,” and the show does somehow always go on.
Humorless financier Fennyman (Stephen Russell) opens the play torturing the unfortunate Henslowe (Art Devine) for unpaid debts, and we’re immediately thrust into the backstage world of Elizabethan theatre, where impresarios compete for talented playwrights, women are forbidden to appear on stage, and money rules the day. Will has sold a yet-unwritten script to two different theaters and has no idea what to write when his close friend and occasional competitor Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (Mario Haynes) offers a ready-made plot Will eagerly grabs as his own. In a sense, the real couple here is Kit and Will; there’s a stronger connection and chemistry between them than between Will and Viola, and they’re generally more interesting people. This has to do largely with the actors: one wishes Nudler and Haynes had more stage time together in those two roles.
It would be easy for this Will to whine—after all, poor him, he’s under pressure and he just can’t perform—but Hanlon and Nudler never let the character go there; this is an artist who exhibits healthy humor about his own plight, who announces with some bravado that “I shall do such things,” but then admits self-deprecatingly, “I don’t know what they are.”
I could really cite nearly every cast member for stand-out performances. Every character is eccentric, and each one is engaging. Macklin Devine gives a tremendously high-energy Cockney portrayal of John Webster before he became dark and obsessive; Haynes does double duty both as the doomed Marlowe and as theatre rock-star Ned (one almost expects him to grab a Telecaster and lay down some fearsome power chords); Jenn Pina provides a hilarious turn as Nurse; Art Devine offers a character in eternal search of a comedy and thereby embodying it himself.
The creative team has also produced a visual delight. Ryan McGettigan’s set is a clever puzzle box of a structure; the only door the audience ever really sees is a trap one in the floor.
And the production never takes itself completely seriously. Anachronistic lines—Viola delayed because “there was a snarl-up at the bridge,” characters offering “the special today” and asking, “did you really just say that?”—feel fresh in the context. Nudler has both comedic timing and sheer silliness as he makes his way along the rafters and notes that he’s “just getting the hang of this.”
There’s something for everyone in Cape Rep’s Shakespeare in Love. Laughter, music, dancing, swordfights, politics, romance… and a sympathetic understanding of why everyone involved in theatre comes back, night after night, no matter how many bad auditions or lack of money or other impediments stand in the way. Fennyman’s touching transformation from hard-nosed financier to budding actor in his first role underscore the production’s point: to borrow from another work altogether, “the play’s the thing.”
At Cape Rep, it most certainly is.
photo courtesy Bob Tucker/Focalpoint Studio