One of the most charming, albeit cheesy, entries in the category of "Fakespearian" stories that put the Bard himself front and center, "Shakespeare in Love" (Palo Alto Players' current production) is a delightful adaptation of the Oscar-winning film of the same name.
In 1593 London, up-and-coming playwright and actor William Shakespeare (Drew Benjamin Jones) is struggling with a bad case of writer's block. The timing is especially unfortunate, as he's promised to deliver plays to both to the weasley Henslowe (David Blackburn), who owns the Rose Theater, and pompous actor and Curtain Theater honcho Burbage (Thomas Times). Henslowe himself is deep in debt to Fennyman (Joey McDaniel) and manages to engender a newfound love of theater in the moneylender by bringing him and a ragtag crew of oddballs together to act in Shakespeare's newest work in progress, the comedy "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter."
Shakespeare is mentored by his friend, the esteemed writer Kit Marlowe (a confident and appealing Brad Satterwhite), who gives him worldly advice and writing suggestions (the noble Marlowe is a much bigger presence, and more of a friend than frenemy, here than in the film). Wealthy Viola de Lesseps (April Culver), a passionate theater lover, longs to be an actor, something that is forbidden to women of all classes in these strict times. She's reluctantly engaged to the oafish nobleman Wessex (Jeff Clarke), who plans to take her to his tobacco plantation in the New World. With the support of her faithful nurse (Melinda Marks), she spends her final weeks before marriage sneaking off in drag as "Thomas Kent," auditioning and scoring the lead role in "Romeo."
Meanwhile, unhappily-married Shakespeare and Viola fall madly in love, despite the impossibility of their romance having a happy ending, and this sets the course for Shakespeare to create his well-known romantic tragedy "Romeo and Juliet" (a rose by any other name may smell as sweet but this doesn't seem to be the case when "Ethel" is involved). Cue tons of aren't-we-clever references, pseudo-Shakespearean speak, a very cute, if nervous, dog (Lucille, The Dog), sword fighting, madrigal singing, the beloved trope of theater being a refuge for artistic misfits, and some regal badassery from Queen Elizabeth I (Doll Piccotto).
The show (adapted by Lee Hall) sticks fairly close to the movie plot and script but, as befitting a story about theater, works even better on stage. I especially enjoyed the quick switching back and forth between backstage and onstage during the debut performance of "Romeo and Juliet." The presence of sporadic dancing and singing by the ensemble (musical direction by Lauren Bevilacqua) added to the Elizabethan flavor in a very pleasing way.
Palo Alto Players' production (directed by Lee Ann Payne) is humming with energy and good cheer. The luminous Culver makes a very good Viola (in the role that made pre-GOOP Gwyneth Paltrow an Academy Award winner) and she's surrounded and supported by skillful performances by the rest of the cast. Blackburn is campily hilarious while McDaniel is wonderful as his comedic foil Fennyman, who glows with excitement upon being given the small but crucial role of the Apothecary. Seton Chiang waltzes in and steals the spotlight as the suave and conceited master actor Ned Alleyn. It's a large cast and each player manages to stand out and make their (in some cases, multiple) roles worth paying attention to.
The set, by Scott Ludwig, appropriately resembles a Tudor-era structure, with the lovely touch of changing sky peeking through the rafters. Costumes by Patricia Tyler are a Renaissance Faire-like pageantry of looks, while Kyle McReddie's fight choreography adds panache to the action sequences.
It's always fun to take a fictional look at the events and characters that could have helped shape some of the world's best-known works of art. "Shakespeare in Love" has comedy, romance, sex, danger, crossdressing, a tiny bit of feminism and a bit with a dog. What more could an audience want from community theater? Palo Alto Players' production is verily as warm, sweet and lovely as a summer's day.
What: "Shakespeare in Love."
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Through Feb. 3.
Info: Go to paplayers.org.
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