Nobody writes like Tom Stoppard — except perhaps William Shakespeare.
When Stoppard does his take on Shakespeare, the result is comedy that is brilliant and hilarious. Witness “Shakespeare in Love” by Stoppard, Lee Hall and Marc Norman. You’ve rolled in the aisle laughing at the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola de Lesseps and Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare. Now you must see the live stage version presented by Tacoma Arts Live and starring Victoria Ashley and Rodman Bolek.
Will Shakespeare (Bolek) has agreed to write two different plays for two different patrons, but he is broke and struggling with a huge case of writer’s block. To the rescue comes fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe (Micheal O’Hara), who feeds him lines and an almost complete synopsis of a play to be called “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” He meets and is immediately smitten with Viola (Ashley), the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant.
In an insanely funny parody on the famous balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” Will tries to win Viola’s love with poetry, but he is stymied trying to think of beautiful words so Marlowe, hiding beneath the balcony, feeds him lines a la Cyrano de Bergerac.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s poetry, Viola — who is already a theater aficionado — becomes determined to act in his new play and auditions disguised as a man — because in Elizabethan England it was illegal for women to be actors.
Ashley and Bolek light up the stage with their acting. Their chemistry is palpable.
Bolek plays Shakespeare as lovably bumbling, while portraying his love for Viola with sincerity and passion. His physical comedy in fight scenes, along with that of the large supporting cast, is worthy of the Marx Brothers times about a dozen — aided by the scope of the large proscenium stage and the tall balcony, which gives the actors ample room to run about wildly (credit must be paid to choreographer Eric Clausell, fight coordinator Geoffrey Alm and director Chris Nardine).
Viola’s passion and distress and sometimes confusion is written all over Ashley’s face, and when she appears disguised as a man, she is a wholly different character. I actually double-checked the program to make sure there were not two actors in her roles.
The play Shakespeare’s actors rehearse and ultimately perform for the Queen (Kathryn Grace Philbrook, who is perfectly majestic and lovable) is, of course, a bowdlerized version of “Romeo and Juliet” with Viola playing the part of Romeo. The rehearsal scenes are farcical, especially when Shakespeare tries to direct the kiss between Romeo and Juliet, but when they perform for the queen, the love between the two and the tragic final scene are as beautiful and touching as the original.
Rachel Fitzgerald turns in a stunning comic role as the nurse. Her double takes and shocked expressions when coming unexpectedly upon people she did not expect to find (such as Will Shakespeare in Viola’s bed) are spectacular. The rest of the supporting cast also is outstanding. Kudo’s to O’Hara, Spencer Funk as the detestable Wessex, Steve Tarry (outstanding in drag), Lukas Amundson as the incompetent actor Wabash, and Brian Tyrrell as Fennyman.
Also worthy of great praise is costume designer Naarah McDonald.
I highly recommend Tacoma Arts Live’s “Shakespeare in Love.”
“Shakespeare in Love”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 3, extra Saturday matinee Nov. 2 at 3 p.m.
Where: Theater on the Square, 901 Broadway, Tacoma,
Information: 253-591-5894, https://tacomaartslive.org