Theater: For & Against

Two views of ‘Shakespeare in Love’

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In Marin Theatre Company’s production of ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ 13 actors perform 35 roles. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Like little boys and marriages, theater productions are rarely all bad, or all good. To illustrate, depending on one’s point of view there are at least two ways of looking at Shakespeare in Love, the stage version of the 1998 film, currently in performance at Mill Valley’s Marin Theatre Company (MTC).

THE CASE FOR: This adaptation of the popular film has a lot going for it. First, its illustrious provenance. The original Academy Award-winning screenplay on which it is based was co-written by a pair of respected veterans of the entertainment world: Marc Norman, who has worked extensively in TV, films, radio and live theater, and the internationally known playwright Tom Stoppard, who has a similar background. The transfer to theater (which closely follows the original) is by Lee Hall, whose impressive biography includes many successful adaptations and original scripts. It’s hard to beat that combination.   

Second, while making no claims to be historically accurate, the play conforms with our imagination’s view of what the lively, competition-driven theater world of Elizabethan London might have been like. Wheeling and dealing are common, along with treachery, lechery and occasional violence, as promoters and performers struggle for survival. Meanwhile, the monarchy and its upper-class supporters enjoy a life of festive balls and banquets against a background of sprightly music of the period (performed by the actors). All of these are vividly depicted in MTC’s production, directed with a sure hand by Jasson Minadakis.

Third, its 35 characters—some historical, others fictional—offer juicy rewards for the versatile and talented 13-member cast, many of whom double or triple to fill the roles. Among the most prominent: L. Peter Callender brings his stentorian voice and commanding presence to Richard Burbage, the leading actor of his time; Stacy Ross is a formidable Queen Elizabeth; Mark Anderson Phillips is the avaricious money lender, Fennyman, who makes everyone’s lives miserable. As for the others, there isn’t a weak member of the ensemble, which includes a little white dog named Spot, who steals every scene he pokes his tiny nose into.

Finally, the play’s central narrative, an account of how Shakespeare (Adam Magill), then a footloose gallant pursuing the ladies, overcomes a severe writer’s block after his success with Two Gentlemen of Verona, by falling in love with Viola de Lesseps (Megan Trout), a fictional aspiring actress who became his muse. Her inventors speculate that this romance not only fostered his composition of the masterful Romeo and Juliet, but began the process of breaking the prohibition against female performers on stage. According to them, the emotional burst of energy that young Will experienced while wooing her inspired some of Romeo and Juliet’s most beautiful passages—including the famous balcony scene and the pair’s tragic death in the Capulet’s tomb—both of which are presented in the play, along with quotes from other works, as a reminder of just how much of a genius the author really was.

THE CASE AGAINST: While the strength of MTC’s production is probably indisputable, research shows that both the film and play have had a mixed critical response. Ben Brantley’s New York Times review (July 23, 2014) of the London premiere typifies the skeptics’ view. To quote: “(The play) may be best described as Shakespeare-flavored, in the way that some soft drinks are advertised as fruit-flavored … ” He then goes on to bemoan what he calls the “twee factor”—too cute and precious for its own good, citing Spot’s gratuitous appearance as one example.  

Another objection that might be raised, especially during this period of increased sensitivity about male/female relationships, is Shakespeare’s casual treatment of the women in his life (until he meets Viola), including a wife whom he left to fend for herself and their children in Stratford while he frolicked among London’s ladies. As morals change, the talented playboy image is definitely no longer a fashionable icon.

Whatever the merits of these arguments, I think they miss the main point. Shakespeare in Love was never intended to be a realistic account of the famous author’s early days. It’s a completely fictional story that fills in gaps in what remains unknown about its subject with material that the authors hope will be entertaining. On that level, the play is a clear winner. Case closed.

NOW PLAYING: Shakespeare in Love runs through December 23 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.

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