Bounding off to review the latest offering in an already inspired season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I felt a little uneasy about seeing "Shakespeare in Love." A play, based on a movie about the world's most famous playwright? Surely, somewhere in the universe, Jean Baudrillard's head was exploding.
Still, it's important to approach such experiments with an open mind, and I was very glad I did. OSF has taken what could have been a merry old mess and turned it into a glorious, golden evening of theater. Bearing in mind that, while "Shakespeare in Love" was written for the screen, it was co-penned by Tom Stoppard — the luminary British playwright who gave us "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" and who re-imagined Chekhov's "Seagull." Dare I say that Lee Hall, who adapted this production for Disney in 2014, has taken that solid foundation and used it to build an even better version? Hall's take on the screenplay is lyrical and sophisticated. More deferential to the playhouse environment, it appears very much at home on the Angus Bowmer stage.
There's a lot happening on that stage, with more than 20 actors operating at full throttle. Many of the players have upwards of five characters apiece. While all seem infinite in faculty, and the core action of the play gives breathe to some wonderful supporting work, it's the lead characters who steal the show.
As Will Shakespeare, William DeMeritt is excellent. Demeritt's Will is part horny frat boy, part mature artist. His gradual evolution into the sort of man who might actually have been able to pen "Twelfth Night" is facilitated by the marvelous Jamie Anne Romero as Viola.
Romero's Viola is a young, unplucked, wide-eyed lover of the stage who falls hard for Will — first through his words and, possibly, later as a result of his obnoxious good looks. In her role as Viola's scatterbrained nurse, K.T. Vogt is comic gold, a romantic enabler par excellence. Playing Lord Wessex, the foppish and entitled nobleman to whom Viola has been promised, Al Espinosa is the villain we all love to hate.
Brent Hinkley (whose previous work at OSF playing Harpo Marx brought down the house) bounces around the stage as Henslowe, a down-on-his-luck theater "entrepreneur." Hinkley has a gift for farce. He is a rubber-faced human Whack-A-Mole who pops up manically and to much hilarity throughout the proceedings.
As Queen Elizabeth I, Kate Mulligan is convincing as the original feminist powerhouse. She plays Gloriana with a stone-faced resilience, but still manages to convey humor and empathy.
There is a running gag in the show involving the necessary presence of a dog in any good piece of Elizabethan theater, and we can add speciesism to the list of prejudices that OSF rejects. Yes, there's a canine in this play, a live one, who hits her mark with aplomb and charms the audience mightily.
Staging is deft and clever, and a deceptively simple set lends itself well to the costuming, which has got to be one of the most grueling sartorial processes ever undertaken by the company. Whoever underwrote this production can be assured that all the dollars ended up onstage.
Sumptuous period attire by Susan Tsu is an important and detailed component of the show.
With many thrilling plot turns, and an unexpected ending, "Shakespeare in Love" is a sweet ambrosia to offset the weightier dramas currently deployed by OSF in their early 2017 season. By all accounts, this is a delicious and entertaining night of theater, well worth your time. See it.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.