“I will have poetry in my life, and adventure, and love,” proclaims Viola de Lesseps, William Shakespeare’s lover, played by the vibrant Ashley D. Nguyen, in Keegan Theatre’s production of Shakespeare in Love. “Love that overthrows life.”
This wonderfully reckless sentiment colors the theater’s regional premiere of Shakespeare in Love. The play, adapted by Lee Hall from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s Academy Award-winning screenplay of the same name, follows a young Will (Terrance Fleming), plagued by twin ills of writer’s block and lovesickness, as he stumbles upon — and later masterminds — one of his most enduring works, Romeo & Juliet. At the play’s opening, its working title is not quite as snappy: Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.
Set in Renaissance England, Shakespeare in Love is a carnival of mistaken identity, two-timers, sword-fighting, petty scheming, dramatic irony, lusty innuendo, tongue twisters, and tempestuous wordplay. And there’s a dog (Spot, played by the incredibly well-behaved, and with excellent comedic timing, Lucas Wookiedog Hartwick, clearly an audience and cast favorite). Amid a complicated matrix of debts and theatrical competition, young Will, already a man of reputation, holds auditions for his burgeoning script. He’s overcome by newbie Thomas Kent’s speech from Two Gentlemen of Verona. After delivering the breathtaking performance, Thomas (who is really the secret play monger and soon to be engaged to-another man Viola) rushes home. Will, flanked by his friend and comrade Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (brought to fresh life by the hilarious and infectiously assured Duane Richards II), chases after Thomas, consequently crashing the de Lesseps family’s party and, later, engaging in a little midnight balcony flirtation with the real Viola. Thomas, of course, is nowhere to be found. Will and Viola embark on their steamy and illicit affair of wits and hearts, Will and Thomas (cast as Romeo) develop a cosmic friendship, and the drama sets sail.
As the Keegan Theatre celebrates its quarter-centennial, it’s hard to imagine a better play, and cast, to steer the festivities. This choice is funny, loving, an overt ode to live theater, so poignant as the world — just as Elizabethan London — continues to battle sickness, racism, and greedy, fearful political leaders who know all too well art’s power and seek to censor it. The duels, verbal and physical, thanks to fight choreographer Ryan Sellers and intimacy choreographer Mallory Shear, remind us of the risks of live theater, and just what’s at stake in great art, poetry, and love.
The Keegan’s intimate staging, with its exposed brick walls and location in the heart of Dupont Circle, currently bedecked in rainbows for Pride, is used in full by co-directors Ricky Drummond and Douglas Dubois, whose cast can be seen flinging merrily in and out of balcony doors and tavern drinking posts. The whole theater is employed; the Queen of England (Bianca Lipford) exits stage right, sweeping the audience with her brilliance and poise. As the real play unfolds, and the stage play struggles to get off the ground — though we know it will. The play, the stage, the world must go on! — audiences are reminded of what an act of faith art is, and how resilient humans, with their instincts to love and marvel and create, truly are.
As for happy endings … well, as Will promises Viola as he drafts Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, it will all work out in the end. “Of course,” Fleming’s Shakespeare winks to us all. “It’s a comedy.”