Alliance Theatre is beginning its 49th season with a completely charming production of the 1998 Oscar-winning Best Picture “Shakespeare in Love,” written for the stage by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. It runs through Sept. 24 at the Conant Performing Arts Center at Oglethorpe University, which is one of the Alliance’s temporary stages as its permanent home at the Woodruff Arts Center gets a makeover.
Those are some pretty big names, and when you add the biggest name of all—William Shakespeare—who contributes a portion of the dialogue (mainly from “Romeo and Juliet”), staging this brilliant film as a play may seem a daunting task. But not to worry: We have some of the best actors in Atlanta to entertain us; Richard Garner, co-founder and producing artistic director of the late, lamented Georgia Shakespeare at the Conant Center, directs; he also plays the role of Henslowe.
Mr. Garner wisely recognizes that “Shakespeare in Love” is “a celebration of live theatre itself”; this is why it works so well for the stage, and the main reason it can “compete” with the film. We see all sorts of backstage antics and the audience feels “in on the joke,” as Garner puts it. If you love live theatre and appreciate actors and what they must go through to make magic for an audience, this is your play.
Perhaps the most important and delightful aspect of this “dramatic comedy” is the unmasking of Will Shakespeare (as his friends call him) as mortal, not just some genius legend, more myth than man. Will, extremely well played by Thomas Azar in his Alliance debut, is a living, loving, likable young man near the beginning of his career. He can have writer’s block, fall madly in love, be frustrated by greedy, loony producers; in short, he can “suffer the whips and scorns of time” (who else do you expect me to quote here?) as much as anyone.
The plot is at once complicated and easy to follow; I’ll give you a taste: Will is creating “Romeo and Juliet,” although he doesn’t know he is—at first. “Pay attention and you will see how genius creates a legend,” as Ned Alleyn (Travis Smith), Will’s likable actor friend with a rather large ego, tells Henslow. You may recall that in Elizabethan times women were not allowed on the stage; young men or boys played female parts.
But there is a lovely young woman named Viola (splendidly played by Bethany Anne Lind) whose heart’s desire is to be an actor. What is she to do? Disguise herself as Thomas Kent, a male actor, of course. Will not only instantly recognizes his/her talent; he finds himself inexplicably romantically drawn to Mr. Kent, thinly disguised as a man. Neither Viola nor Will are fools: They admit their attraction and he happily discovers she is, indeed, a woman, and from a wealthy family.
Her father (Allan Edwards) has decided that Viola must marry Lord Wessex (Joe Knezevich, in another fine, funny performance); it is a mutually profitable alliance. The fact that Viola doesn’t love Wessex is of no importance; once they get Queen Elizabeth’s (Tinashe Kajese-Bolden, in a delightfully fierce performance) consent, it automatically becomes her command. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Wessex, Will and Viola’s romance has flowered and become passionate. The Queen, however, who misses little, can tell; after Viola is presented to Her Majesty, the Queen privately and bluntly tells Wessex, “Have her then; but you are a lordly fool. She’s been plucked since I saw her last, and not by you. It takes a woman to know it.”
This is one of my two favorite lines in the play. The other is Viola’s, after she and Will first make love: “I would not have thought it. There is something better than a play.” Oh—I also like young Sam’s (Stephen Ruffin) line, (he’s playing Juliet) as he frets backstage: “I cannot move in this dress! And it makes me look like a pig!” Mr. Ruffin has undeniable stage presence. Sam, however, does not get to play Juliet in the climactic scenes. Would you like to guess who does?
There is a stage full of outstanding actors, most of whom you will have seen if you’re an Atlanta theatregoer. Here are some, all of them quite fine: Jeremy Aggers, Chase Steven Anderson (lots of fun as the pompous Tilney), Barrett Doyle, Thomas Neal Antwon Ghant (playing Christopher Marlowe), Devon Hales, Brian Hatch (his character, Burbage, saves the day: “Will Shakespeare has a play. I have a theatre. The Curtain is yours.” Thus the audience gets a taste of what the first performance of “Romeo and Juliet” may have been like; for me the highlight of the film and the play), Chris Kayser (delicious as always), Tess Malis Kincaid (great fun as Viola’s Nurse), and Rial Ellworth.
The program notes say that young Caleb Baumann (Webster) “is ecstatic to be part of this incredible Alliance cast.” He should be. In fact, I detect a real esprit de corps here that makes this live production of “Shakespeare in Love” a thing of beauty.
More kudos: Angela Balogh Calin’s glorious set and costumes; Ken Yunker’s expert lighting design; and McCree O’Kelley’s choreography. If Mr. O’Kelley was responsible for the poetic upstage juggling and rehearsal of dance steps, I thank him: I didn’t think this bit of cinematic magic would transfer to the stage; it does, and it’s hypnotic.
I’m very glad that Alliance Artistic Director Susan Booth got Richard Garner to direct this huge production; it was obviously a labor of love, for his vast Shakespearean experience has made him a natural for this play; bravo to him. He also plays a mean Henslowe.
I must also say that Bethany Anne Lind brings subtlety, charm, and a keen intelligence to the role of Viola. Gwyneth Paltrow may have won an Oscar for her screen portrayal, but it is Ms. Lind who wins our hearts. She’s a major talent.
Queen Elizabeth wondered whether a play “can show the very truth and nature of love.” I think you’ll find the answer to that question at “Shakespeare in Love.”
For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.