By Ashley Ramsey
It’s hard to imagine a world in which William Shakespeare is not the brilliant and crafty wordsmith that the world now adores. But imagine instead a struggling common playwright who currently has writer’s block. This is the Will that we find upon the opening of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s regional premiere of Shakespeare in Love, opening in Cedar City. Based on the Academy Award-winning film of the same name written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman and adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, it tells the a fanciful story of the muse that would inspire one of the greatest writers the world has ever known.
Set in London in 1593, we find a young William Shakespeare (Quinn Mattfield) composing his latest work, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, for a struggling theatre currently in debt to its producers. Will confides in his friend and fellow playwright, Kit Marlowe (Shane Kenyon), that the inspiration is gone from his life and he has lost the passion to write. Across town, a competing theatre company has staged a production of Will’s Two Gentleman of Verona for Queen Elizabeth. Also in attendance to the show is the beautiful and fiery Viola De Lesseps who loves Will’s works and dreams of being onstage. As auditions move forward for Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, Viola decides to disguise herself as Thomas Kent and auditions for the production. Enamored with Master Kent’s performance, Will and Kit bring notice to the De Lesseps of Master Kent’s casting as Romeo. As they arrive at the home, Will meets the now not cross-dressing Viola and is instantly smitten. With his wingman Kit by his side, he sneaks onto Viola’s balcony and the very familiar scene begins to unfold. As Will’s real life love for Viola begins to inspire his writing, Will discovers Viola’s disguise as Master Kent and their romance continues despite the complication that Viola has been promised to Virginian tobacco farmer, Lord Wessex. Supported by a cast of wonderful friends and enemies, the story of their ill-fated romance takes center stage both in script and reality.
Utah Shakespeare Festival attracts some of the best talent from all across the nation and this production is no different. It showcases this talent in all aspects of the production. Scenic Designer Scott Davis and Lighting Designer Donna Ruzika create a beautiful environment that simply and stunningly contributes to the world around us. Bill Black’s costume designs are beautiful, highlighting each character’s personality and contribute in building a better understanding of each character’s background. The movement of the actors is showcased in Choreographer Christine Kellogg’s beautiful, historical dances as well as Fight Director Geoffrey Kent’s fanciful, exciting, and even comical fight scenes.
Leading the cast in the roles of William Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps are real-life husband and wife Mattfield and Betsy Mugavero. The chemistry between the two on stage is fierce and palpable. Their delivery and pacing in their lines and actions quickly enfolds you into their world and doesn’t let go until the final bow. It is such a treat to see actors who live in their roles instead of just playing them and Mattfield and Mugavero, along with other members of the cast, showcase this the entire show. Kenyon’s Kit Marlowe is smart, passionate, sexy, and intriguing every time he enters the stage. Kenyon and Mattfield’s onstage friendship has a beautiful depth to it and Kenyon’s Marlowe is incredibly giving to his fellow actors onstage. While Marlowe is the lesser known of the two authors, Kenyon’s performance feels so familiar, for those who are not familiar with Marlowe’s work will no doubt be intrigued now. All three leads are powerhouses that are not to be missed.
The entire cast makes for a remarkable ensemble with such well-rounded roles and performances that every single one of them was a delight on stage. There is such an ease and comfort among the cast that it invites and draws the audience in. The Nurse (Leslie Brott) brings a intense motherly protection to her role. Brott’s presence onstage could not be ignored and when she has something to say, you listen. Lord Wessex (Geoffrey Kent) is a terrifying villain because he is the villain we all know–that person who will do anything to preserve their needs and power, no matter what hurt is caused along the way. Kent is towering and dignified onstage and vocally so strong and clear. I did not miss a single word from Lord Wessex. Other stand outs include Wabash (John Harrell), the tender and kind tailor turned actor (he made me cry!); the charismatic, fiercely confident, and talented Ned Alleyn (Jeb Burris); and the noble, beautiful and brilliant Queen Elizabeth (Susanna Florence.) Also I would be amiss to not mention the wonderfully quirky Boatman (Redge Palmer), and the scene-stealing moments of Spot played by Titus.
Director Brian Vaughn (also the festival’s artistic director), has created a beautifully flowing piece through clear staging, beats, and pacing. Through his direction, the imaginary world of Romeo and Juliet and the reality of William and Viola flow seamlessly back and forth, blurring the lines of real life and art. Vaughn’s use of music, both live and recorded, helps to set the mood and brought the emotions to a heightened state of existence. Most notable is the wonderful use of the highlight of comedy and the low light of drama. You always knew what you were supposed to be feeling as the rise and falls of the scene were so real and natural. With a cast and production as unified as this is one, it is no doubt that Vaughn’s clear vision, expertise, and creativeness led them to it.
While much of Shakespeare’s early life is unknown, Shakespeare in Love weaves together fact, speculation, and some wonderfully imagined events. It is a great introduction to the world and language of Shakespeare’s plays as it uses both verse and more modern English language. One of its greatest strengths is it breaks down the often feared wall of Shakespeare plays and places it firmly in a relatable reality and makes the connection to the realism that is sometimes missed in Shakespeare’s works.
Shakespeare in Love is tender, funny, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking. It will leave you asking yourself what limits do we place on our passions? Are rules worth breaking in pursuit of true happiness? Although the world that we live in today is different than the strange traditions of Shakespeare’s world, I don’t think the human spirit has changed much and maybe neither has society. The feelings of lost passions and inspirations are not feelings that are lost on our culture today. As Viola proclaims, “I will have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love. Love above all.” Is this not what many (or all of us) search for today? Shakespeare in Love will ask you what or who is your muse. It is my hope that I will also find mine, just as Will found his in Marlowe and Viola, and as many today now find in the Bard himself.
This show has nothing that a tween or teen (or their parents) would find objectionable. But it is a solid two hours.
Utah Shakespeare Festival presents Shakespeare in Love by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman and adapted for the stage by Lee Hall
Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, 200 W College Ave, Cedar City, UT 84720
July 7-September 8 2:30 PM, 8:00 PM
Please visit www.bard.org for ticket availability, show dates, and times.