“I am very sorry, sir,” said Bob. I am behind my time.
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Much like Bob Cratchit, I must apologize profusely to the cast and crew of USC’s outstanding production of Shakespeare In Love. After seeing last Sunday’s matinee, I planned to have a review ready within a couple of days. A series of storms, both literal and figurative, got in my way this week, and I’m afraid my review will serve more of an archival purpose than a promotional one. Nonetheless, the show deserves the accolades I have been carrying around in my head for six days, so here goes:
Based upon the Tom Stoppard film of the same title, Lee Hall’s Shakespeare In Love retains “about 90%” of Stoppard’s film dialogue, according to Kevin Bush, Marketing Director for USC’s Department of Theatre and Dance. The old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is wisely heeded by Hall, who still manages to bring a freshness and slight opening-up of the film to his stage adaptation. Also impressive is the Elizabethan-meets-Techno music by composer Paddy Cunneen, which underscores (pun intended) the timelessness of not only Shakespeare’s works, but also the message that tumultuous love affairs existed well before gossip tabloids and tell-all books. Having live musicians onstage, augmenting the recorded bits was an excellent choice, and the overall aesthetic was that of an Elizabethan love story that could just as easily happen today.
Staying faithful to the movie’s plot, the play, a young William Shakespeare is having difficulty finishing his “comedy” of Romeo and Juliet. With opening night creeping ever closer, Shakespeare’s anxiety and frustration put production of the show into increasing unlikeliness, until he finds his muse in Viola, a young woman of the upper classes who disguises herself as “Thomas Kent,” and manages to land the role of Romeo (ironically, opposite a boy in female dress as Juliet, given the era’s ban on women performing onstage.) A romance quickly blossoms, despite Viola’s engagement to a nobleman whom she neither loves nor understands, and who seeks her dowry to prop up his estate in the Colonies. As in the film, mistaken identities, double-and-triple layers of deception, and Shakespeare’s Cyrano-esque courtship of Viola (with his friend, Kit Marlowe, supplying romantic dialogue from a nearby hiding place,) propel the plot. As one might presume, chaos obviously ensues, but to paraphrase the title of another of The Bard’s works, all’s well that (almost) ends well, and though Viola does, indeed, depart for The New World, the ensuing heartbreak prompts Shakespeare to reconceptualize Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy, overcoming his writer’s block, and finishing what eventually becomes one of his most celebrated and oft-performed plays.
As Shakespeare, John Romanski is less the dashing Bard of legend, and much more an ordinary young artist, struggling to find fame and love. Bravo to Romanski for taking a role that could have been played as a whinier version of Charlie Brown mooning over The Little Red-Haired Girl, and embracing the joy and enthusiasm he has for his writing and performing troupe. Though not a doppelganger, Romanski’s look definitely offers a reasonable approximation of what Shakespeare may have looked like as a young man. I particularly enjoyed Romanski’s layering of emotions and reactions to the series of successes and failures his character faces. To say that his fortunes swing like a pendulum is an understatement, yet Romanski never makes his transitions from happiness to despair to fear to ecstasy jarring or overly sudden. He plays the subtlety of Shakespeare as expertly as the bombast, and never allows himself to veer into a parody or exaggerated comic version of the role.
Olivia Hensley’s Viola is another “perfect fit” for her role, with her pluck and determination paired with softness and genuine care for the playwright with whom she finds herself falling in love. Hensley’s look is gently beautiful, with the flowing hair and stylish dresses of an Elizabethan lady of means and stature, which makes her successful disguise as a boy even more impressive. As with Romanski, she never falls victim to caricature, but does change her voice and bodily movement to create both an elegant ingénue and a male commoner who is honestly believable. Her final letter to Shakespeare is a mini tour-de-force, and Hensley is spot-on with her delivery, mixing resignation, sadness, and “smiling against tears” into a brio of emotions that provide one of the show’s most touching moments.
Wessex, the “designated baddie” of the show, is brought to life by William Hollerung, who combines a scheming con man’s superficial charm with a few moments of genuine menace. You don’t like him very much, but you can almost feel sympathy for him, despite the atrocities he commits against Viola, and his overall pomposity and conniving. I would stop short of describing him as a comedic villain, but there is a sprinkling of bumbling humour underpinning his rogueish misdeeds, and Hollerung plays the laugh moments (an especially funny bit involving rotating clothing racks brought the house down Sunday afternoon) perfectly straight, which makes them even funnier. As the most ill-intentioned character in the show, he is ironically dressed in all white, reinforcing his outer layer of respectability. (Nice choice, Costume Designer Molly Morgan.)
The rest of the cast is uniformly solid, which speaks volumes of Director Andrew Schwartz’s skills at casting and direction, as well as the quality of education USC Theatre students are receiving. This was a good play, period; not just a “good college show.” I would personally place it in competition with most professional shows I have seen. The cast was well-rehearsed, the timing and delivery were impeccable across the board, and was over long before I wanted it to end.
Scenic Designer Nate Terracio’s set is semi-minimalist, with a few flourishes of grandeur, which perfectly reflects the events and encounters Shakespeare experiences throughout. I’m not sure whether or not that was the motivating force behind his design concept, but it was most effective in tying together the physical locations and the mindset of the protagonist.
Again, I offer my mea maxima culpa for my tardiness to all involved with this most enjoyable production. Yours faithfully promises to be Johnny-on-the-Spot with getting his job done next time. Bravi, Shakespeare In Love company! You truly created a work of which you can be quite proud.
Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.