“Shall I compare thee to …,” says Williams Shakespeare, unable to finish the line. Frustrated, he tries different phrases. “… an autumn morning,” ‘… an afternoon in springtime.” Nothing seems right.
His friend, Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, casually throws out “… a summer’s day.” Shakespeare’s not sure it will work, but Marlowe argues for it. “Start with something lovely, temperate, and thoroughly trite,” he says. “Gives you somewhere to go.”
There are many moments like this in “Shakespeare in Love,” which will be at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison through Nov. 12. Moments when we see Shakespeare not as the iconic bard, but as the struggling craftsman. During much of the play, he’s having trouble with “Romeo and Juliet” (still using its original working title, “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter”), and phrases that would show up in his other plays (“Out, damn spot,” “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”) are laced throughout the dialogue.
I found these references amusing, as were comedic bits such as Queen Elizabeth (played by Erika Rolfsrud) judging plays’ worth solely by whether they feature a dog or not; and Fennyman (Ames Adamson), the fearsome financial backer of “Romeo and Juliet,” turning into an ultra-eager, serious thespian when given the small role of the apothecary.
But “Shakespeare in Love” is, on the most basic level, a love story. Shakespeare (played by Jon Barker) and Viola (Whitney Maris Brown), an heiress who disguises herself as a young man in order to become an actor, fall for each other, even though Shakespeare is, technically, married to someone else.
And as a love story, alas, this “Shakespeare in Love” didn’t work for me. The chemistry seemed off. I can’t even really explain why — isn’t that always the way, with love? — but I just didn’t care if this initially hapless but ultimately brilliant Shakespeare and this cool, confident Viola ended up together. And that represented a big hole in the middle of this production, for me. This a long play — two hours and 45 minutes — and I found it hard to sustain interest throughout.
I don’t remember having the same reaction when watching the original, Best Picture Oscar-winning film version of “Shakespeare in Love,” almost 20 years ago. The movie’s screenplay, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, was adapted, by Lee Hall, for this play, which debuted in London in 2014 and is making its Northeast debut at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
With the theater’s artistic director, Bonnie L. Monte, directing, a large cast of 21 (including the dog) has been assembled. Great care was taken to supplement the action with appropriate dancing (Danielle Liccardo is credited as the period dance consultant) and music (directed by Kris Kukul).
In the program for “Shakespeare in Love,” Monte writes about being “delirious with excitement” about bringing it to the stage, and most of the reviewers have been very enthusiastic. Having enjoyed the movie, I had high expectations for the play, too. But it didn’t quite live up to them.
“Shakespeare in Love” will be presented at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through Nov. 12; visit shakespearenj.org.