Shakespeare In Love
Theatre Cedar Rapids — through March 24
Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare In Love was a hit on the screen — it garnered a small handful of Oscars for those involved (don’t get me started on Paltrow’s win). In some ways, the cinematic origin story/loose biopic re-legitimized Shakespeare — his most iconic romance was accessible to masses again, using more colloquial language to fluff the iambic into an understandable text for all.
It makes sense that it would be translated back onto the stage. And honestly this story almost feels as though it was originally conceived for the stage, and was then co-opted by someone with a fancy camera. Thank goodness we have the opportunity to see this story play out in it’s actual wheelhouse (and both Shakespeare’s and Stoppard’s more frequented medium) — it eliminates the exclusionary feeling a screen can carry and puts the actors and story within reach.
Benjamin Stuben Farrar’s scenic design for Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of Shakespeare In Love is nothing short of wonderful. It’s seldom that a set utilizes all the production abilities in a space like TCR without appearing garish or exploitative. The beautifully crafted turntable was expertly used throughout the production. Living smack in the center of the stage, the rotating platform is so smooth and malleable — it becomes a river navigated, a moment’s shift in time, a mindful conundrum, backstage–now front-of-stage for a show-within-a-show in progress. And the decision not to hide it’s movement was a glorious hat tip to the mechanics that help to create theater’s magic.
The fly system was used with a scrim that allowed that theatrical magic to continue — reality cast in a dream’s veil, or a moment stolen we might not have been able to see otherwise. And when it was flown out of sight, it took any coloring of a perspective with it, and the action felt incredibly present — its use was marvelously fulfilling and effective. The overall feel was reminiscent of the “blank canvas” of Elizabethan theaters — ornate yet useful for all tales at all times. And the simple exits and entrances worked well at all points of activity in the show.
Director Angie Toomsen’s sound design included all your favorite Elizabethan hits — from one nondescript diddy to another — creating an appropriate soundscape to usher transitions, both emotional and visual. Chris Rich’s lighting design was effective as well, highlighting certain moments with smooth shifts within the scrim world and without. There was a particular moment where director’s vision, scenic elements and performers came together under a brilliantly timed and enacted lighting shift — a character’s line of thought stayed consistent though the physical context changed completely. It was a stunning transition.
The costumes (designed by Joni Sackett) were brilliant. I know that TCR was able to borrow some items from sister companies, but some were painstakingly built by hand by TCR staff, and they have achieved some truly spectacular garments. There are so many actors to dress in this cast, and I’d like to take a moment to high-five the backstage crew for their ability to help quick-change these actors in and out of ornate clothing (and in and out of some amazing — but I imagine cumbersome — wigs too!) at near lightning speeds.
The vocal and physical work is stellar as well. Kevin Moore’s combat portions are a well-oiled chaos that show the individual strengths of each actor involved. And across the board, accent work was consistent and accurate. (Accents are really hard, you guys!) A big kudos to Katy Hahn and her dialect work with each actor.
All in all, it was the very best overall technical design I’ve witnessed on the TCR stage, and possibly one of the very best designs I’ve seen period.
John Mierson’s William Shakespeare is everything I hoped it would be. He has a confidence that well suits one of theater’s greatest playwrights, and his overall interpretation of Will is easy to believe. Lauren Galliart’s Viola De Lesseps was just the right amount of sass in a very large skirt — helping us to admire her outspoken qualities within a time ill-suited for anyone without a third leg. They had wonderful chemistry together and it was fun to root for their love.
There were times when their more intimate moments were colored by a push to project their voices, and some of these moments unfortunately lost some of that connection, but I am still overjoyed at the elimination of body mics for TCR’s straight plays on the mainstage (it’s impossible to create depth of sound using them — which is essential when stories and emotions shift and change in performance).
The only moment I felt lacked more than I was willing to give up was the famous death scene in Romeo and Juliet. The context for a performer in this moment is one of expediency and chaos, so coming from that into a moment of extraordinary love and grief would be difficult for the most trained of performers. Still: That famous moment between arguably the most famous lovers ever to have been imagined fell flat. After everything preceding, I wanted it to soar.
Matthew James plays the great Christopher Marlowe with such honesty and panache, it makes the viewer mourn his early death with unexpected fury. The play is *Shakespeare* In Love, but making Marlowe such an important character in the script is a lovely addition. He helps Will become the playwright he was meant to be and solidifies himself as Shakespeare’s true muse (even if Will is unable to see it through a curtain of hetero lust, the script makes it beautifully clear by the end).
James’ interpretation includes a delightful foppish attitude, blurring the lines of the character’s sexuality — and truly, there is an unwavering and unapologetic nod to sexuality and individuality sprinkled throughout the show. But still, I can’t help but imagine what Marlowe could have accomplished, had he not walked into the tavern on that final, bloody night. If he had lived, perhaps it would be Marlowe’s name in the title of this show, and the Will Shakespeare we’ve come to know, love and study would instead be the less examined, glorified blip in literary history.
Chemistry is everywhere on the TCR stage, between the title lovers and also among the supporting characters. Viola and her Nurse (played by Karlē Myers) exude the notion that they have been a part of each others’ lives for years and years. And whatever is between Marlowe and Shakespeare has a generosity and comfort to it that is enviable.
The audience is elated with the onstage company when a stutter subsides, when an actor fully driven by his ego works with his competition to let art live and be supported as it should, where a group of men hoist a woman onto their shoulders as she reaches up and taps a glass ceiling until it begins to crack a little. There is a company of performers highlighted on the stage, but it is driven by a generous and collaborative company of actors from the
Eastern Iowa — and it shows.
Toomsen’s vision, with Sarah Hinzman’s assistance, creates a world so beautiful and comfortable that we don’t just want to dip our toes in it, we want to submerge ourselves completely. The production is full of strong directorial choices, and every one of them does exactly what they are meant to do: serve the story, the characters and the audience, and honor the sources which sparked it’s conception. I’ve seen quite a few plays under the direction of Toomsen, and this may just be my favorite of her cannon. She directed the literal fuck out of this show, and I am overjoyed at the work she was able to guide and cultivate with the help of her fellow artists.
I am often not a fan of movies being reworked into stage appropriate pieces for Broadway ticket prices. But this one is different. The script has everything in it: romance, comedy, tragedy, hope despite logic and even a little bit of coming-of-age thrown in for good measure. You’ll hear trickles of Shakespeare quotes throughout, which is a delight to Shakes nerds like myself. It shows the mayhem, work ethic and drive that every artist commits to a production.
And it is a lovely homage to the power of art: It can join people beyond the rage or competition they may feel and create a mirror for the audience, highlighting the beauty in our humdrum moments and the potential for great passion fulfilled. All this, in the tender and marvelous hands of the many local artists behind the creation of and gifting of this particular production to us.
Don’t rent the movie, folks. Not this time.