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Theatre Review: "Shakespeare in Love" at Cincinnati Playhouse

September on local stages is dominated by the Bard of Avon.

Cincinnati Shakespeare opened its intimate new theater with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Playhouse in the Park begins its season with Shakespeare in Love, later this month Northern Kentucky University will also be Dream-ing and University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music goes for the big one – Hamlet.

Shakespeare in Love is a crowd-pleaser for Playhouse. If you don’t remember the Oscar-winning film from 1998 – it’s about a young Shakespeare (Nicholas Carriere) with writer’s block: "Shall I compare thee to a ... What? What? What's the word?”

He soon meets the lovely (and richly dowered) Viola (Emily Trask), who has a yearning to dress like a young man so she can trod the boards (Females weren’t allowed on stage at the time).

She/he is chosen to play Romeo in the new play Romeo and – Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, or somebody. Lack of inspiration continues, until Viola is revealed as a she, not a he, and becomes Shakespeare’s muse.

Complication: She’s betrothed to the loathsome Lord Wessex who plans to take her father’s dough and head for the New World (a.k.a. Virginia) to make a bigger fortune, and Shakespeare is married, which he forgets to mention.

The joy of the screenplay, co-written by Tom Stoppard, was its joyous celebration of Shakespeare, of plays and players, of the mystery of making things somehow come together in the ephemeral world on the stage, which is live and alive and changes at every performance.

The play offers an explanation for Romeo and Juliet’s star-crossed lovers, its comedy taking a sudden turn to tragedy, and of course Viola will live on, as Shakespeare’s most delightful heroine.

Does the stage adaptation stand up to the screen version? Of course not, but Lee Hall has done a good-enough job, and together with a solid company of actors the audience enjoys smart and silly comedy, love lost, and the lasting lesson that great art will always connect with us because it touches on the human condition whatever the century.

Playhouse producing artistic director Blake Robison has had past problems with taking cinematic writing (like last year’s painful season opener, based on John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany) to the confines of a stage, but the switch works here.

The action is set on an Elizabethan stage, which is a snug fit for the play script. Christopher Marlowe (Avery Glymph) gives Will some of what will become his best writing; there’s referencing to other characters from other plays (watch for yellow stockings with cross garters). Queen Elizabeth I (Naomi Jacobson) is very present, ruling everyone and everything she surveys and David Whalen is among the stand-outs as the anchor of the play-within-the-play’s acting company.

Shakespeare in Love is a good time, and who knows? Together with shows like Something Rotten, a musical spin through the same general landscape that toured to Cincinnati last season, it might even bring the Bard some new fans.

Shakespeare in Love, through Sept. 30. Playhouse in the Park, Eden Park. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $35-$101 plus fees. 513-421-3888 and www.cincyplay.com.

Review by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts