A delightful ‘Shakespeare in Love’ from the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

The fictional Oscar-winning film about Shakespeare, his writer's block and the way he's smitten by a London woman becomes a stage play that he could have written.

Luigi Sottile and Mairin Lee in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's production of

Luigi Sottile and Mairin Lee in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's production of "Shakespeare in Love." (Photo by Leo A. Butz)

And now, time for some classy Elizabethan fun, and in just the right venue. The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival has opened a stage adaptation of “Shakespeare in Love,” the film that won the 1999 best-picture Oscar. Like the movie, the play is a delight, especially in the high-spirited production directed by the festival’s leader, Patrick Mulcahy.

The plot about a young Shakespeare with writer’s block is a fiction but contains several elements that match real history — a specialty of Tom Stoppard, the celebrated playwright who wrote the film script along with Marc Norman. Shakespeare was never as artistically lost, as far as we know, as “Shakespeare in Love” would have it. (Oh hold your horses, any Shakespeare deniers out there.) Another playwright, Lee Hall — he wrote film and the stage musical “Billy Elliot” — faithfully turned the screenplay into a live-theater piece. It opened on London’s West End four summers ago.

For directors — and especially Shakespeare-festival artistic directors like Mulcahy, the stage adaptation is a super-sized gift. It allows them to do Shakespeare without actually doing Shakespeare, although I hasten to add that three of Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s five summer main-stage offerings are always written by The Bard. One of them this season is King Richard II, done by the same cast as “Shakespeare in Love” at alternating performances.

“Shakespeare in Love” sometimes uses Shakespeare’s own work in its general dialogue and blends characters, real and imagined, to create a William Shakespeare who’s not yet our language’s arguably greatest talent. Will (the engaging and Romanesque Luigi Sottile) just can’t seem to rouse the muse. At the start of the play, he struggles mightily to compose what will become his most beloved sonnet.

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“Shall I compare thee to…” To what? It takes a buddy/competitor, Christopher Marlowe (Justin Adams) to barge in and prod him. “A summer’s day!” Marlowe blurts. Ah, yes, that’s it.

Will, it turns out, has a lot on his plate. He’s taking a break from Stratford and his unpleasant marriage there to live in London, where theater has become big-city vibrant under the tutelage of Queen Elizabeth (the swell, no-nonsense Starla Benford).  He owes London theater owners plays he hasn’t been able to write, let alone deliver. His latest unfinished manuscript is a comedy, “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter,” and it’s a mystery to him how that will work.

Into Will’s creative desert comes an image of lush beauty: Viola de Lesseps (the lovely and altogether credible Mairin Lee). She’s smart, from a wealthy family, and a Shakespeare fan-girl who captivates the Bard when they meet at a social event. Viola longs to be on the stage in his plays, but acting is illegal for women in Britain at that time. So she dresses as a man, auditions, and secretly wins the role of Romeo.

With Viola as his stand-in muse, Shakespeare kills his “Romeo and Ethel” comedy, turns Ethel into Juliet (at Marlowe’s prodding), and hits on the idea of making “Romeo and Juliet” a tragedy. Then he hits on Viola de Lesseps, unaware that she is also the young guy he’s hired to play Romeo.

If the idea of a gender-swapping poseur sounds like something Shakespeare would write, well, he did.  In fact, one of the best elements of “Shakespeare in Love” is the way it seems more like a real Shakespeare play as it moves along, with a parent arranging a marriage for Viola against her will, plus plot lines of trickery and deception, and the inevitable sword and saber fight (that here includes the Bard).

The production’s most charming moments, directed by Mulcahy with care and performed with haunting beauty, come when the dialogue really is by Shakespeare. The play contains his sweetest lines between Romeo and Juliet, and when Sottile’s young Shakespeare exchanges them with Lee’s delicate Viola, they are two birds singing to each other in the nest.

Singing, in fact, is a hallmark of this 25-member cast, including a beautiful cream-colored golden retriever and four onstage musicians who play minor roles. (Another four musicians play offstage.) Paddy Cunneen’s Elizabethan-tinged music throughout the production sets perfect moods. The music direction comes from one of Philadelphia’s most talented theater artists, Liz Filios.

“Shakespeare in Love” poses a question that turns into a wager, and the winner is judged by the Queen herself. The question: Can a play ever capture the true nature of love? Shakespeare’s plays do, and this spoof on his life certainly does. Yet I think in this case, it’s not “Shakespeare in Love,” itself that winds the bet, it’s the festival’s production.

“Shakespeare in Love” runs through August 5 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, on DeSales University Campus, 2755 Station Avenue in Center Valley, Pa., a few miles north of Quakertown. The same cast is performing Shakespeare’s “King Richard II” in repertory with Shakespeare in Love.” 610-282-9455 or pashakespeare.org.

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