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It's the Bard Without All Those Funny Words in 'Shakespeare in Love' at the Cleveland Play House 

click to enlarge Foreground left to right: Charlie Thurston (Will Shakespeare), Nigel the Dog (Spot), Peter Hargrave (Lord Wessex). Background: Grant Goodman (Ned Alleyn).

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Foreground left to right: Charlie Thurston (Will Shakespeare), Nigel the Dog (Spot), Peter Hargrave (Lord Wessex). Background: Grant Goodman (Ned Alleyn).

Do you want a cookie for being a good theater-going person and attending various Shakespeare plays over the years? Well, here's a chocolate chip confection the size of your head. Shakespeare in Love is a Shakespeare-like play for those who sit in the audience of real Shakespeare plays and often wonder: What the fuck are they talking about?

Yes, the Bard's offerings can sometimes be linguistically vexing to the modern ear. And this play, adapted by Lee Hall from the Oscar-winning movie by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, sets out to make every single patron feel real smart by feeding us little doggie treats of Shakespearean cliches wrapped around a love story between young Will and Viola. Viola is a woman of means who yearns to take the stage, which was forbidden to females in Elizabethan London.

Speaking of Queen Elizabeth and dogs, each makes multiple appearances in this play since the sovereign insists on having pooches in the plays she attends, whether or not a canine is called for in the script. This is a play that, like certain over-eager terriers, humps your leg until you pat it on its head and give it compliments.

So here goes: Shakespeare in Love as directed by the talented and witty Laura Kepley is many giggles wide and an inch deep. Thus, a deep dive is not recommended. But if you feel like wiggling your tootsies in some Shakespeare-esque language and a few really bad jokes, this production is a dandy little excursion.

The central conceit is that Will is blocked as a writer, unable to finish the sentence, "Shall I compare thee to ... ." Of course, everyone in the audience is aching to finish the line for him, and so it goes for the ensuing two-and-a-half hours as various sure-fire lines and scenes are repurposed for comedic effect. For instance, Shakespeare's proposed title for his play, a supposed comedy, is Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. Silly playwright!

Indeed, Shakespeare is portrayed as a sort of lovable, hunky dolt and Charlie Thurston qualifies for both those adjectives as he swoons over Viola — whom he first encounters dressed as a young man auditioning for his play. Later, when he tries to entreat Viola from beneath her balcony (get it?), he is fed lines by his pal Christopher Marlowe (Andhy Mendez) in a sly send-up of the supposed collaboration between the two writers.

As Act 1 ends, Will and Viola have worked out the gender confusion and, in a beautifully staged scene, they embrace in silhouette on a shrouded canopy bed. One can easily imagine Cupid's fiery shaft piercing the lady's, um, heart. Of course, eager to not leave anyone behind, Viola gasps in wonderment, "Oh, there is something better than a play!" As Viola, Marina Shay is delightful as a love-struck woman but less than convincing as the man she pretends to be.

The sub-plot, such as it is, involves the business of theater in that era, with playwrights desperately trying to pitch their scripts while dealing with the fiscal demands of various producers, prominent actors and other hangers-on. One of those actors, Ned Alleyn, is played with egotistical ferocity by Grant Goodman.

In the end, Shakespeare turns his re-titled Romeo and Juliet into a tragedy where the lovers die. So everyone leaves happy, apart from the producer Henslowe who laments: "Well, that's going to get a lot of laughs!"

There are some other excellent supporting performances. Brian Owen as the pompous actor Richard Burbage is amusing, ad-libbing with the audience and strutting like a very needy peacock. Donald Carrier as Henslowe nails a number of punch lines, while Tina Stafford is doubly entertaining as the icy Queen and as Viola's protective, no-nonsense nurse. And adding the wisdom of children is Tommy Bilczo as Webster, a youngster who also hungers for the stage.

Once you get past some of the too-obvious jokes — the aforementioned pup is called Spot and I won't trouble you with the lame joke based on that moniker — the show has a palpable love for theater and its folk. And for those who adore stage fights, there are plenty on stage with skillful swordplay, and off-stage as actors slam into each other in the aisles and against walls.

The handsome set and costumes designed by Lex Liang, the seamless choreography by David Shimotakahara and the lush sound by designer and composer Jane Shaw serve to make the entire production feel far more substantive than the script allows it to be.

But that's the essence of theater, isn't it? We love to immerse ourselves in lovely illusions, and Shakespeare in Love provides just such an opportunity.

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