Encore Michigan

Fall For ‘Shakespeare in Love’ at Hope Summer Rep

Review July 23, 2019 Bridgette Redman

HOLLAND, Mich.–Everyone wants to know what inspires the creators of great works. What do they see that we do not? What do they feel that we do not?

Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love (adapted for the stage by Lee Hall from the 1998 film version) suggests that Shakespeare’s works came not only from his muses in the form of a lover and a fellow playwright, but also from the lips of everyone around him.

Shakespeare in Love, which is currently playing at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre, the last of their summer season shows to open, opens with an uninspired William Shakespeare unable to even complete a sonnet. He’s overshadowed by his friend Christopher Marlowe who enjoys all the success he craves. Christopher, known as Kit, is a good friend to Will and frequently provides him with suggestions that the Shakespeare fan will recognize as being a part of Will’s eventual work.

Directed by Cameron Knight, an alumni of University of Michigan-Flint who is now a professor at the University of North Carolina, this Shakespeare in Love explores the ways that passion affects us, whether it inspires us, makes us fearful, fills us with courage, or leads us to do things we never thought ourselves capable of.

Leading the cast are Lenny Banovez as Will Shakespeare and Meg Rogers as Viola. These two turn up the heat on stage, making the indoor temperatures simmer to match the outdoor melt-down. The charisma between them is scorching and it is easy to believe that their love is the inspiration for “Romeo and Juliet,” a play that would transform how love was perceived on stage.

Banovez is all we expect from a budding genius who has encountered a severe case of writer’s block. He personifies frustration and desire with a taut energy that propels him forward to continually seek out the muse he knows he has lost. Since the audience knows what Will does not—that inspiration will come to him and he will become the greatest playwright of his age, overshadowing even Marlowe–Banovez must make it believable that failure is an option, that the stakes are high, and he does this quite well.

Rogers is no mere passive foil to be gazed upon and fill another with inspiration. She is herself looking for poetry to fill her life, to let her rise above her lot in life and experience a love that lets her be more than a bargaining chip to the powerful men who hold command over her. She gives Viola a brightly burning fire as well as an impetuousness that gives her the courage to chase what she wants out of life regardless of whether it is legal or socially acceptable.

The romantic comedy is filled with characters who are entertaining and bombastic. They re-create the Elizabethan world of theater, the mother of today’s theater and one with elements those in the theater recognize all too keenly–whether it is the difficulty of raising money, the overweening egos of star actors, or the outright terror at the beginning of tech week that a show isn’t going to come together in time for curtain.

Ben Lohrberg’s Marlowe feels like the Mercutio to Will’s Romeo, a friend always present to aid and just a little bit bigger than life. Lohrberg instills his Marlowe with an insouciant brilliance and confidence that makes his too-early death feel like a real tragedy and loss, leaving us to wonder what works he might have bequeathed to us had he lived longer.

Jon Grunnert is a Lord Wessex we love to hate. He is all that is wrong with men of the Elizabethan period, those who see women as mere bargaining chips, as breeders, as a means to an end. He is boorish, grasping, arrogant, misogynist and it pains us to think that he might end up with the woman who inspired the greatest romantic heroine of all time. Grunnert doesn’t hesitate to make the choices that make Wessex despicable and deplorable.

Jasmine Bracey is this summer’s go-to progressive heroine for HSRT. She is paying the title character in “Truth: The Testimonial of Sojourner Truth” and in this show she is Queen Elizabeth, a monarch to be feared and one who assures the heroine that she knows what it is like to be a woman doing a man’s job. She is more than slightly ribald but constantly commands the stage, with a boost from costumer T. Stacey Hicks, who puts her in large outfits that nearly double Bracey’s size and let her fill the stage when she appears.

Hicks does well by all the actors, especially in providing Rogers with both men’s and women’s clothing into which she must quickly change in and out. She easily fits both men and women in period clothing designed for both genders, making the disguised women handsome and the masquerading men gorgeous.

The cast is large and filled with actors who delight in playing their parts in this love letter to theater and all the different characters who people it.

Knight makes great use of the large HSRT stage and its sweeping set pieces designed by Sarah Pearline. As is usual in this theater, the set pieces dwarf the actors, taking on a magnificent scale that elevates the storytelling, promising from the first moment the possibility of epic storytelling.

There are many large group scenes and Knight sets them up well, especially toward the end when scenes flip back and forth between backstage and onstage. He positions his actors well so that they can provide the backup music of reactions without distracting from the main action.

HSRT’s Shakespeare in Love is a delightful romantic comedy that can tickle the fancies of both Shakespeare fan and neophyte alike. It’s wonderful summer entertainment put on by a talented group of artistic staff, actors, and technicians.

Week of 9/16/2019

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