Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey pays tribute to ‘Shakespeare in Love’

By Liz Keill

MADISON, NJ – Many audiences loved the film version of “Shakespeare in Love,” which won the best picture Academy Award in 1999, with dialogue by Marc Noonan and Tom Stoppard. Adapted by Lee Hall for the stage, much of the dialogue remains. The production has a warmth and intimacy that gives the story an intensely appealing dimension.

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Artistic Director Bonnie Monte has directed a first-rate cast, with Jon Barker as Will Shakespeare and Whitney Maris Brown as Viola De Lesseps. These star-crossed lovers will never have their own happy ending, but none-the-less she is his muse and his inspiration for “Twelfth Night.”  Will is married to Ann Hathaway and Viola is engaged to Wessex (Marcus Dean Fuller.)  Barker perfectly captures the frustrations of writing as well as love’s loneliness and longing. De Lesseps neatly conveys the young woman posing as a male actor and, of course, smitten by Shakespeare.

There’s grittiness and a bawdy atmosphere, as the itinerant players try to keep their acting efforts going. The always delightful Edmond Genest is Henslowe, keen on making Will’s latest play work out somehow or other. They’re in rehearsal for “Romeo and Juliet” which Will initially thought of as a comedy, named “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.” He gets considerable advice from Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, played with flair by Anthony Marble. Erika Rolfsrud is starchly commanding in the double role of Queen Elizabeth and Viola’s Nurse, stating her views in no uncertain terms. Especially as the queen, she insists she like plays with dogs in them. And, indeed, Shakespeare Theatre cooperates with Spot, an affectionate Dublin Delancy McFinnigan. When he acts up, one actor shouts, “Out, damned Spot.” What makes it all vastly entertaining are the familiar and unfamiliar Shakespeare lines that are tossed around, while the play itself has its own dialogue.

A number of actors are familiar faces on the NJST stage, including Ames Adamson, Patrick Toon and David Andrew Macdonald.

All the elements are smoothly integrated, with Brian Clinnin’s rough and sturdy scenery, Nikki Delhomme’s period costumes and musical interludes by Kris Kukul. Rick Sordelet directed the fight scenes, which have their own stylized intensity. There’s definitely a feel of Elizabethan England in every aspect of the production.

Monte has spoken lovingly of both the film and the play, noting she was “delirious with excitement” when she was able to get the rights for the stage play.

The only drawback to the play is its length, which is close to three hours with intermission. Some scenes could be tightened, but then again, this is an exciting and engaging new work.

“Shakespeare in Love;” continues at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, located on the Drew University campus in Madison, through Nov. 12. For tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit ShakespeareNJ.org.