Dallas — Summer is for love stories, outdoor theater, and Shakespeare. So, why not combine all three into a romantic comedy performed outdoors, and better yet, choose something Shakespeare-flavored and based on a popular film to draw them in even more? This is just what Shakespeare Dallas does for its 48th season with its sparkling production of Shakespeare in Love, running in repertory with As You Like It.
You may recall the film of the same name released in 1998 when Gwyneth Paltrow was still universally loved, Joseph Fiennes was just Ralph’s younger brother, and Harvey Weinstein was merely a pushy, Oscar-hunting producer. Shakespeare in Love the movie, which won the 1998 Best Picture Oscar, looks at the writing and love life of William Shakespeare and was penned by Marc Norman and that darling of erudite drama, Tom Stoppard (they won the original screenwriting Oscar). English screenwriter Lee Hall — of the movies Billy Elliot and the forthcoming Cats, and the recent Rocketman — adapted the screenplay for the stage.
Executive and Artistic Director of Shakespeare Dallas, Raphael Parry, helms this production with deft touches of entertaining romance and nuance, which is a feat given the source material that can come off as too tongue-in-cheek and precious in the wrong hands. (The movie has since been maligned for winning the Oscar over the war films Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, both seen as superior filmmaking achievements.)
The play’s story is the same as the movie’s plot. Our hero is the lovelorn and lost Will Shakespeare (Montgomery Sutton) on the cusp of greatness — of whom a character remarks, “never heard of him.” He has promised scripts all over town with the title, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter (a joke that still kills), yet he’s at an inspirational impasse. He meets his muse and potential lead in the theater-loving Viola de Lesseps (Stephanie Oustalet); however, she is forbidden to be an actor per the Elizabethan prohibition of women onstage. Much like many of Shakespeare’s plays, crossdressing, sex, sword fights, and forbidden love ensue to much hilarity and heartbreak.
Parry’s production provides many sweet moments, overcoming opening-night traps such as the usual bugaboo of an intermittent sound system at the park (it did begin previews after the space was harmed by a devastating storm a few days earlier), and some overenthusiastic (drunk?) opening-night audience members hooting and hollering as if they were at a children’s puppet show (ah, summer outdoor Shakespeare). Chief among these moments are the “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” sequence in which Viola reads the sonnet as a silent rehearsal for a nascent Romeo and Juliet happens in the background, and an ingenious bit of staging during the rowboat escape scene with beautiful singing (inspired music direction by Guilherme Almeida) as Romeo confesses his love to the disguised Viola.
The ensemble is strong from top to bottom, which can be hard to accomplish in outdoor summer theater with a large cast, with standouts Sutton, fully committed and believable as a dashing Will, and a refreshingly earnest Oustalet as Viola (Paltrow won the Best Actress Oscar in the role). Matt Holmes as Kit Marlowe is a tragic, golden genius, Ethan Armstrong’s creepy Webster is quite good, and Nicole Berastequi is a vision of imperial iciness as Queen Elizabeth (that role won Judi Dench a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, for just eight minutes of screen time). Jeremiah Johnson’s Ned Alleyn is a dashing capital-A Actor, and a gruff-voiced and always-energetic Steven Young as Burbage continues to command the stage no matter the part. And we can’t not mention the scene-stealing dog Spot (played by Jack Cale-McVay, pooch of actress Kateri Cale and Bob McVay).
Describing the business of theater, Henslowe (Michael Johnson) remarks that its “natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road of imminent disaster…but strangely enough, it all turns out well.” How good theater comes together has always been a bit of a “mystery.”
There must be something in the summer air.
» Read our interview with director Raphael Parry
» Shakespeare in Love runs in rotating repertory with As You Like It, which previews June 19 and 20, opens June 21 and repeats June 22. Beginning Sunday, June 23, the summer schedule is Shakespeare in Love on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays through July 21; As You Like It is performed on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, through July 19. Junior Players presents Much Ado About Nothing from July 30 through Aug. 4. Curtain is 8:15 p.m. for every performance.