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CPH’s ‘Shakespeare In Love’ by any other name would smell so sweet

Witnessing a Cleveland Play House performance Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare In Love (adopted for the stage by Lee hall) is quite similar to what one would find in the Globe Theatre in London England. A highly energetic cast takes the show right out into the audience area (including some of the fight scenes) making for a very personal experience of theater. In short, it is smashing!

Young William Shakespeare is a struggling poet and playwright living in London. He has pretty much abandoned his estranged wife and children who reside in his home town of Stratford. He literally lives from play to play and for the most part is impoverished and deep in debt as most writers of his day. Shakespeare is close friends with Christopher (Kit) Marlow who although a rival serves as his mentor while helping him out financially and serving as a sounding board for various ideas.

In 1593 it was common practice for playwrights to “borrow” phrases, segments, acts and even entire plays passing them off as their own. Thus it is found that Shakespeare’s “Gentlemen of Verona” is being produced by a rival theater without Shakespeare’s permission or knowledge. An affair between Shakespeare and Rosaline (mistress of rival theater owner Richard Burbage) has gone south as she has taken up with Edmund Tilney who serves Queen Elizabeth as Master of Revelers (in charge of all royal festivals and later theater censorship).

Having lost his muse he is behind schedule on his latest comedic work “Romeo and Ethel, the pirate’s daughter” but is suffering from writers block. When he finds that the Queen is attending his latest stolen play (it is noted that while a patron of the arts, the Queen prefers comedies especially if they employ a dog).

At the performance of The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare meets and falls for Viola de Lesseps (daughter of a wealthy merchant) who is attending with the Queen’s court. Viola is so taken by the young playwright and the acting bug that she disguises herself as Thomas Kent and auditions for the part of Romeo in the yet unwritten play.

Shakespeare is impressed with Thomas Kent who flees for fear of being discovered but Shakespeare follows her/him to Viola’s residence leaving a note for Thomas with the nurse. That night, Shakespeare returns to the villa where a large party is being held and sneaks in with the musicians. The party is intended to introduce Viola to Lord Wessex (an impoverished aristocrat who is desperate to marry into money in order to finance his tobacco interests in the Americas).

Shakespeare and Viola dance and fall in love but are discovered by Lord Wessex who demands to know Shakespeare’s name (he answers “Christopher Marlow” and flees). Later, Shakespeare sneaks back into the garden and is able to briefly talk with Viola thus cementing their love.

His muse returned, Shakespeare begins in earnest to write his new tragedy, Romeo and Juliet for which Viola disguised as Thomas Kent is rehearsing (which is punishable by hanging of the entire cast and theater owner if found out since women were not allowed on the stage). Soon, Shakespeare discovers Violas secret and they end up spending the night together. Poems that he has written for her end up being incorporated into the play.

All is not happy in Merry Olde as Burbage finds out about Shakespeare’s involvement with his mistress, Marlow is murdered in a bar brawl, and Viola becomes a bargaining chip giving title to her family through marriage in exchange for her father financing Lord Wessex’s Virginian tobacco enterprise, all the while various forces are trying to close down the production of Romeo and Juliet.

Charlie Thurston* shines as Will Shakespeare, hitting all the marks in both comedy and drama. His athleticism shines through in this very physical role that requires much climbing, running, fighting and romancing. He does all with aplomb. His foil, Marina Shay* as Viola De Lesseps is perfectly matched as she woos young Will while trying to fend off Lord Wessex. This is a strong part designed for a strong woman and Marina carries it off. Andhy Mendez does a fine interpretation of Christopher Marlow as Shakespeare’s benefactor.

Some minor parts worth looking for are Evan Zes* as Fennyman, Tina Stafford* who does an amazing double duty as nurse and Queen Elizabeth (elaborate costume changes and all) and Donald Carrier* as “it’s a mystery” Henslow. Lastly, Nigel as Spot the dog steals the stage with each entrance and his antics are wonderful to behold. A rescue from the Northeast Arkansas Humane Society he has been paired with guardian/trainer William Berloni since 2008.

The stage sets by Lex Liang are masterful with just enough presence to convey the idea of various locals with the transitions being flawless. Lighting by Russell H. Champa is spot on setting the mood for the various emotions on display. Sound was clean and crisp all the way back to the back of the audience. Special mention must also be made of the on stage musicians while not playing period instruments of guitar, accordion, drum set and box drum they never the less added to the atmosphere along with the piped in music.

While the play deals fast and loose with some facts, there is enough thread of truth throughout to hold your interest. This could be termed an historical fiction of sorts. No adult language is used but there are some adult themes present throughout. A great evening will be had by family’s of late teenage children of maturity.

From the opening salvo of the gang of actors taking over the theatre to the heartfelt finish where Shakespeare delivers an ending soliloquy this show has it all. Much like well done live Shakespearian performances it is a lively mix of comedy, romance, tragedy, pathos and lighting quick insults. Great viewing for the entire family whether a fan of the Bard or not.

The Cleveland Play House production of “Shakespeare In Love” will be on stage in the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square through October 1, 2017. Tickets may be purchased by phone by calling (216) 241-6000, online at or at the Playhouse Square Box Office located in the outer lobby of the State Theatre.

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Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.  

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