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Did my heart love till now? - ‘Shakespeare in Love’

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Did my heart love till now? - ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (photo by Dan Rajter)

STONINGTON – The love story behind one of history’s greatest love stories is currently playing out on the stage of the Stonington Opera House.

Opera House Arts is presenting Lee Hall’s acclaimed stage adaptation of the 1998 Oscar-winning film “Shakespeare in Love.” The show – directed by Julia Sears – runs through July 28.

Traditionally, OHA has presented one of Shakespeare’s plays, but as part of the celebration of their 20th season, the choice was made to mix things up. Thus, a play not BY Shakespeare, but rather one ABOUT him. It’s a clever pick that accentuates OHA’s usual strengths while also offering a chance to engage with something a little bit different.

It doesn’t hurt that it’s a fantastic story – a tale of one man’s desperate desire for greatness, on the page and in matters of the heart alike, and the woman whose own greatness may prove to be both blessing and curse. All of it set against a backdrop of backstage shenanigans as a handful of rogues and ruffians try to get their acts together long enough to put on a show – a show that’s still being written. Oh, and an unwanted marriage. And a queen. And a dog.

The wildest part of all? It’s even better than it sounds.

Will Shakespeare (Christopher Joel Onken) is a poet struggling to rediscover his muse. He has had some early success with his play “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” but coming up with a follow-up has proven difficult, despite the ready assistance of good friend and fellow poet Kit Marlowe (Jay Myers).

And he needs to come up with something, because he’s made promises. Promises to Richard Burbage (John Lincoln) to deliver a new show for Burbage’s men to add to their repertory. Promises to Henslowe (Bari Robinson), who needs to deliver a show because of HIS promises to Fennyman (David H. Littleton), who wants the profits in order to recoup money owed him.

Meanwhile, Viola de Lesseps (Imani Youngblood) is the daughter of a wealthy business man who, in pursuit of a title, has agreed to marry her off to the much-older Lord Wessex (J. Stephen Brantley). But Viola loves the theatre – loves it so much that she wants nothing more than to be on the stage. Despite Queen Elizabeth’s (Rebecca Hirota) affinity for the theatre, it remains illegal for women to be actors.

As Henslowe and Will cast their yet-to-be-written show – titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” – they struggle to find capable actors, ultimately dragging their drinking buddies from the pub into the mix. On the plus side, touring legend Ned Alleyn (Arisael Rivera) is onboard as Mercutio and young Sam (Reed Davis) is set to play the female lead. But there is no Romeo – until HE walks in.

Or rather – SHE.

Viola, with the help of her trusted nurse (Elizabeth Rimar), escapes her room unnoticed. Disguised as a man and calling herself Kent, she auditions for and wins the part of Romeo. She demonstrates a true talent for the stage, quickly becoming one of the best of the bunch. All welcome “Kent” with admiration and respect – all but the bitter young Webster (Marvin Merritt IV).

But in her other life, her life at court, she is still being prepared for marriage to Lord Wessex. Only there’s someone else, someone she encountered at a ball. A new someone who has set her passions aflame – and whose passions have themselves been set to burning.

Someone named Will Shakespeare.

And even as their love blooms, so too does the show, as Will begins writing his current state of affairs into the script. The play evolves and changes, with the love story moving front and center and all things pirate falling by the wayside.

But obstacles abound. Burbage wants the play he is owed and seeks to claim this new script as his property, to be performed by his men. Lord Wessex grows increasingly suspicious of Viola’s erratic behavior, though his suspicions may be ill-targeted. Will and Viola try desperately to maintain their secrets, but secrets have a way of coming out, whether on stage or in life … or both.

Star-cross’d lovers indeed.

Opera House Arts has been producing consistently excellent theatre for years, simply tremendous work – and “Shakespeare in Love” ranks with the best of the lot. It is baldly, unabashedly romantic and tremendously funny.

The glee with which the tale liberally borrows from all aspects of the Shakespearean canon is palpable throughout. This is a script that knows how clever it is and doesn’t necessarily care that you know it knows. It could have been off-putting, but the whole thing is so exquisitely executed that one can’t help but be swept up. It’s self-aware without winking too much; a fine line to walk, but one that’s necessary for this to work.

And boy does it work.

Credit for that has to go to director Julia Sears. A show like this one requires a director willing and able to shift stylistic gears with efficiency; Sears handles it as gracefully as one could hope for. The movement is well-paced and clean – vital to a piece that moves this fast in this particular space. The storytelling is finely-tuned and sharp. The choice to drop in the occasional anachronism was another interesting gambit that paid off – no spoilers, but keep an eye out for the dance sequences. And God save the Queen. Oh, and as an added bonus, there’s a fight scene that’s entertaining as hell.

The performances are outstanding across the board. Onken is magnetic as Will Shakespeare, capturing the elation and frustration that comes with being in love. Youngblood equals Onken’s charisma as Viola, evoking the yearning and desire that drives the young woman forward in all ways. The two of them together are dynamite; the chemistry is palpable. The pair clicks both romantically and comedically, which is both difficult to pull off and great fun to watch.

And the rest of the ensemble is just as strong. Everyone else in the cast is playing at least two roles – a few have four or five – but the energy level never wavers. The truth is that every single person in this group has at least a handful of highlights – too many to list, really. The charm and chill vibe given Marlowe by Jay Myers warrants mention. So too does the scenery-chewing bombast with which John Lincoln infuses Richard Burbage. The haughtiness of Rebecca Hirota’s Queen Elizabeth. The bustling affection of Elizabeth Rimar’s Nurse. The tumbling, high-octane joie de vivre of Arisael Rivera’s Ned Alleyn.

And on and on and on. Everyone excels.

Same story on the production side. The flexibility of Sara Pisheh’s scenic design allows for the general rapidity of the pacing, yet also provides a few surprise moments of specific functionality. Those moving parts are accentuated beautifully by Christina Watanabe’s lighting design, a plot packed with bold colors and sharp delineations. Renee Yong’s sharp sound design and Nicole Zausmer’s vivid costuming are both well-crafted as well.

“Shakespeare in Love” is yet another example of the consistent excellence of OHA. This is a clever and charming show, one that literally has something for everyone. Jokes and action and romance and intrigue – it’s all on this stage. With top-notch direction and an ensemble that is top-to-bottom excellent, “Shakespeare in Love” shines brightly.

Last modified on Tuesday, 23 July 2019 15:53

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