April! National Poetry Month and the month in which Shakespeare was born and died.
How fitting, then, that Capital Rep is mounting Lee Hall’s adaptation of the screenplay by Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard. Under the tightly choreographed direction of Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, this homage to the man and his muse is getting a funny, lively, all-hands-on-deck treatment by some of the area’s most talented performers as well as pros from outside the region.
And the play is a love letter to theater itself.
It’s 1593, in London. We meet Shakespeare’s (Christian Ryan) professional contemporaries: playwright Christopher Marlowe (Kevin Craig West), producers Philip Henslowe (Kevin McGuire) and Richard Burbage (David Girard), actor Edward Alleyn (Tom Templeton), as well as Queen Elizabeth I (a superb Laurie O’Brien), by whose authority entertainment in 16th century England either happened or didn’t.
Shakespeare himself is still an up-and-comer. In the amusing opening scene we see him struggling to compose Sonnet XVIII (Shall I compare thee…), a moment that instantly reminds us he was a mere mortal who probably counted out iambic pentameter on his fingers the way the rest of us do. Always looking for inspiration, he obviously must have found it, as the playwrights imaginatively suggest, in conversations and situations all around him; and it is great fun to identify “sources” for other plays in the events in his own life. One, for example, is the locking up of two scoundrels — Lord Wessex (David Kenner) and Tilney (Benita Zahn) — backstage at The Curtain, which puts us in mind of the imprisonment of Malvolio in “Twelfth Night.”
Of course, the conceit — completely fabricated — for this play is that Shakespeare gets his idea for “Romeo and Juliet” (a comedy he thought about calling “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”) from a love affair with Viola (Jenny Strassburg), a wealthy young woman who dresses as a man in order to audition for one of Shakespeare’s plays, so much does she admire them. She tries out for Romeo, but by the end of Act I, Shakespeare discovers her true identity and she becomes the private inspiration for Juliet, which he continues to write through Act II even as their love affair is complicated by other matters.
This production is a big, colorful circus. There’s singing and instrumental accompaniment, thanks to musical director Josh D. Smith’s treatment of Paddy Cunneen’s score. Freddy Ramirez handles the dancing. The two-tiered set by Lawrence E. Moten III is properly roomy for simultaneous action. The cast is handsomely dressed in period pieces (with modern accents) by Evan Prizant, and a nod to Michael Dunn for Elizabeth’s hair. Margaret E. Hall is the invaluable assistant director.
The play depends on the strong work of Ryan, who successfully makes Shakespeare three-dimensional — talented, mercurial, fragile, irresponsible, ambitious: a guy we might know.
Cap Rep regular Strassburg nicely captures the plight of a bright woman of the Renaissance who must follow dictates more than dreams, a situation echoed movingly by the Queen near the conclusion.
But all of the supporting actors shine, like John Romeo, delightful as Fennyman, producer-turned-aspiring-actor; and Ellen Cribbs, who makes Viola’s feisty nurse the apt model for Juliet’s. In Mancinelli-Cahill’s delicious riff on cross-dressing and gender fluidity, Zahn is a properly officious — well, official. Fred Sirois has a riveting moment as Wabash, who overcomes a stutter when called upon to deliver the Prologue to “Romeo and Juliet.”
And McGuire gets perhaps the savviest line of the evening, one that also closes the play. When asked how something nearly impossible is going to happen onstage, Henslowe says, as only a person deeply immersed in the transformative and magical nature of theater can believe, “It is a mystery.”
For us in the audience, too, it is a wonderful mystery.
'Shakespeare in Love'
WHERE: Capital Repertory Theater, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: through May 12
HOW MUCH: $62-$27
MORE INFO: 518.445.7469, or capitalrep.org