by reporter Nathaniel Nelson
I’ll be frank — I’m more of a film critic than a theater critic. I’ve reviewed films for the better half of a decade, and there are few films I loathe as much as “Shakespeare in Love.” To me, the film was trite and formulaic, with a slimy coating of romance that made me squirm. Period pieces are always hit-or-miss, but “Shakespeare in Love” just came off as quick and dirty Oscar bait; the kind of film that wins awards and then fades into the sunset (looking at you, “King’s Speech.”)
With that being the case, can someone explain to me why I loved Great River Shakespeare Festival’s production so much?
Let me try to break it down. First, there’s the acting. Unlike the film, I loved being around these characters. The script itself is fairly witty, but the actors breathed life into the words and made the humor go from slight to overbearing. The production is an absolute riot. Christopher Peltier’s Will Shakespeare oozes charisma and tact, with that kind of entrancing charm you see in the Indiana Joneses of the world. His counterpart, Viola De Lessup (Anna Sundberg) is played more aggressively independent than in the original film. Viola feels like a living, breathing person (who could no doubt smack some sense into these renaissance misogynists) and, in my mind, comes off as the most developed character of the play.
The real star of the show, however, is Benjamin Boucvalt’s Kitt Marlowe. Marlowe is played with a bit of a self aware wink to the audience, emphasizing both the romanticism and the comedy that the original film intended to show. His banter and interactions with Will are comedy gold, with the humorous physicality to match.
Take the first big romantic scene, for example. Will and Marlowe have done a little sneaking to find Viola standing on her balcony, leaning over with the gleam of love in her eyes. Will, the anxious wreck that he is, hides behind a wall away from his muse until Marlowe forces the man out. Will and Viola’s eyes meet, and she presses him to tell her a poem. He stumbles and fails, until Marlowe steps in and begins to whisper lines into the playwright’s ears. The two tag-team the sonnet until Will blasts forward for a kiss, prompting Marlowe to prop him up like a tire jack. The scene is indicative of the entire play, really — humor mixed with hearty romanticism.
But this is to say nothing of the stage itself. Whoever came up with the rotating theater platform is a genius, particularly in the final act of the play. The show revolves around the writing of “Romeo and Juliet” and, of course, it wouldn’t be complete without a performance. To keep the wheels turning on the main plot, though, the front of the platform is used for the performance while the plot continues to develop behind. By keeping the rotation going, audiences can view the scene from multiple angles at once — keeping the show moving at a rollicking pace.
GRSF’s rendition is definitely more comedy than romantic drama, but there are subtleties here that cross the threshold. The original film treated Viola like an object, a tool for the development of Will’s writing. But here, that line is blurred. Will gives Viola the escape she wanted from her regimented and forced life in royalty, allowing her a brief respite before her arranged marriage to the loathsome Lord Wessex (Andrew Carlson). At the same time, Viola challenges Will in his writing, forcing him to respect himself and his work and commit to being the writer she knows he can be. It’s a reciprocal relationship, moving beyond the straightforward development of a male protagonist and instead showcasing two characters with their own ambitions.
Moving away from the tired “artist needs muse to art” trope is the adaptation’s biggest success. In this modern era, gender roles have shifted and what worked two decades ago doesn’t work nearly as well today. GRSF’s “Shakespeare in Love” is pure entertainment that also gives something for audiences to think about. Are muses really a thing? Or is it personal relationships that give art its punch?