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Entertainment & Arts

Review: The Bard, times two: ‘Shakespeare in Love’ at SCR, plus Shakespeare, the retirement years

South Coast Repertory presents “Shakespeare in Love” based on the screenplay by Marc Norman & To
Paul David Story and Carmela Corbett play Will Shakespeare and Viola in South Coast Repertory’s production of “Shakespeare in Love.”
(Tania Thompson / South Coast Repertory)
Theater Critic

Welcome to the Shakespeare Emporium, your one-stop shopping choice for all your Shakespeare accessories.

Tote bags and sweatshirts will advertise your love of the Bard. A Stratford-upon-Avon mug will remind you as you sip your tea of the birthplace of the English language’s greatest poet. Pens emblazoned with the initials W.S. could bring out the lyrical turn in your writing. And wouldn’t you like to rest the small of your back on a cushion with Shakespeare’s welcoming face?

The worldwide supplier of everything Shakespeare can outfit your kitchen with a “Taming of the Shrew” tea cozy and turn a deck of playing cards into a Wars of the Roses history lesson. The merchandising ingenuity might have impressed the great one himself, though Shakespeare could be excused for having some ambivalence over the way his plays have taken a backseat to his branded image.

Two plays about Shakespeare, both of which opened last weekend in our area, are the kinds of theatrical entertainments that would be right at home at the Shakespeare Emporium. “Shakespeare in Love,” a stage adaptation of the 1998 Oscar-winning film, has been given an elaborate, if uninspired, staging by South Coast Repertory Artistic Director Marc Masterson. And “Shakespeare his wife and the dog,” a trinket for two actors (and a tape-recorded mutt) that premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014, has somehow found its way to Santa Monica, where it’s playing at the Broad Stage’s intimate Edye theater under a title that rejects both commas and proper capitalization.

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Playful works of historical fiction, these offerings concoct scenarios about Shakespeare’s life (about which we know so precious little) while ransacking poetic jewels from the plays like a cat burglar with an English literature degree. Though hardly an artistic triumph, “Shakespeare in Love,” adapted by Lee Hall from the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, succeeds to an extent as a backstage comedy grounded in romance. More muddled in its form and function, “Shakespeare his wife and the dog,” written by Philip Whitchurch (who stars opposite Sally Edwards), amounts to little more than an acting exercise for performers who want to bite into Shakespeare’s language as though sampling a box of assorted chocolates.

Masterson’s production of “Shakespeare in Love” proves that the movie can be transferred to the stage but leaves unresolved the question of whether it should be. (The mixed reviews from the various stagings around the globe are similarly inconclusive on this score.) The dominant impression at SCR is of a novel parceled out for performance — the shifting locales creating a hectic to-ing and fro-ing of actors, who must scramble to keep up with a story designed for a fleeter medium.

The movie struck me as strained upon seeing it again for the first time since it was initially released. Halfway through I was prepared to add to producer Harvey Weinstein’s growing list of malefactions the relatively minor sin of having bamboozled the academy into thinking that “Shakespeare in Love” was deserving of the Oscar for best picture. I eventually succumbed to the ardent performances of Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, but only after acclimating to the film’s preciousness, sentimentality and self-satisfied wit.

At Costa Mesa, Paul David Story is Will Shakespeare and Carmela Corbett is Viola, a wealthy young woman whose love of poetry has her dressing up as a man to perform in the brand-new work of a married writer who falls as hard for her as she falls for him. The play being performed will come to be known as “Romeo and Juliet” once Will, infused with love and longing, chucks the idea of “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter,” choosing art over contrived hackwork.

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Bill Brochtrup makes for a priggishly plotting Lord Wessex, the well-born but financially strapped gentleman who enters a deal with Viola’s father for her hand in marriage. Bo Foxworth portrays Henslowe, the impresario whose debts have finally caught up with him, with a frazzled air. And Corey Brill passes ethereally in and out of the action as Kit Marlowe, Shakespeare’s more established (and far more irreverent) playwriting rival whose untimely death clears the theatrical field for Shakespeare’s eventual conquest.

Paddy Cunneen’s festive, faux-antique folk music is performed by musicians occupying an upper corner of the stage. The score rises between scenes as the machinery of the staging (which ran into technical difficulties at the reviewed performance) loads in the next set. The effect, rather than adding to the fluidity of the production, is lumbering.

Visually, the staging is charmless. Set designer Ralph Funicello attempts to conjure the agile woodpile of an Elizabethan playhouse, but the production’s palette is grimly monotonous. The wigs are especially pathetic, making the company seem like a motley crew of caricatures. And save for the regalia of Queen Elizabeth I (Elyse Mirto) and one or two of Viola’s ensembles, the dismal costumes by Susan Tsu repel scrutiny.

Story’s Will and Corbett’s Viola aren’t overflowing with chemistry, but one can’t help rooting for their short-lived but consequential romance. The stakes have nothing to do with Shakespeare’s biography. The world here is fictional, with only a wall-papering of historical truth. What compels our amorous complicity is the genre of romantic comedy, which even at several levels below “Much Ado About Nothing” and “As You Like It” manages to win our favor.

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Philip Whitchurch and Sally Edwards in “Shakespeare his wife and the dog” at the Broad Stage.
(Bated Breath )

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If only “Shakespeare his wife and the dog” could have figured out a dramatic model for the story it fails to tell about the last day of Shakespeare’s life. The script plays out like an improvisation that has been frozen before its author has figured out the underlying purpose of the work.

Shakespeare was 52 when he died, which was hardly young by 17th century standards, but Whitchurch’s Will resembles a Polonius who, rather than being stabbed behind the arras, lived out his days as a foggy-headed pensioner in the sticks. Wandering around in the middle of the night in his nightshirt, he enters into a conversation with his impatient wife, Anne, who shows signs of senile dementia. (An alternative title for the work could be “The Shakespeares: The Assisted Living Years.”)

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Lacking an organic structure for this aimless tête-à-tête, Whitchurch imposes a ramshackle Beckettian framework around the marital reckoning of a wife who resents her husband for having put his heart and soul into his work instead of his family. Will, by contrast, is distraught by the way his retirement has become a kind of death-in-life. The two circle about a chest that is spilling over with manuscript pages, quoting lines from the plays to fill the time the way the tramps in “Waiting for Godot” trade non sequiturs and bowler hats.

Whitchurch’s Cuisinart recipe works neither as historical fiction nor as absurdist riff. Directed by Julia St. John, the production might win applause at a fringe festival in the U.K. but seems trivial and indulgent halfway around the world. “Shakespeare his wife and the dog” is yet another sign of the crisis of artistic leadership at the Broad Stage.

As for Shakespeare, he will certainly survive all the clumsy love and attention, the romanticization of how he worked, the modern assumption that he invented his plots out of whole cloth. But it bears reminding that his true glory lies in his plays, not in his life story. Theaters wishing to honor him would be better advised to grapple with his works and leave the Shakespeareana to the tourist shops.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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‘Shakespeare in Love’

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Feb. 10

Tickets: $36-$93

Info: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org

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Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Shakespeare his wife and the dog’

Where: The Edye at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays

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Tickets: Start at $45 (subject to change)

Info: (310) 434-3200 or www.thebroadstage.org

Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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