Viola de Lesseps (Whitney Maris Brown) and Shakespeare (Jon Barker) dance. COURTESY JERRY DALIA

‘Shakespeare in Love’
Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall

First Northeast production, through Sunday, Nov. 12

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
36 Madison Ave., Madison, 973-408-5600


Go see “Shakespeare in Love” at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival at your peril.

It may break your heart.

If you’ve ever done theater, or performed in theater, that is. There’s a love story with a bittersweet ending, but that doesn’t hurt so much.

Heartbreak begins around the time the dashing Ned Allyn (Garrett Lawson) runs in with a company of his professional actors to rescue Shakespeare’s script, “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter,” from a company of “misfit toys.”

It continues during a rehearsal scene, when Romeo really Viola de Lesseps posing as a boy (Whitney Maris Brown) gets acting tips, and reminders of where stage right is.

It isn’t so much Viola’s hankering for an actor’s life as it is Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s affectionate portrayal of it, circa 1595, that will prompt your whispered, “Where did I go wrong?”

The 1998 film, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola, Dame Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth, and Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare, won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Paltrow, Best Supporting Actress for Dench, best Original Screenplay for Stoppard and Norman, and Best Director for John Madden.

So why see the play?

Because it’s a terrific piece of theater. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presets the first Northeast production of Lee Hall’s adaptation, which is a true rethinking for the theater, not merely a staging of the film. Every time Queen Elizabeth (regal and sardonically funny Erika Rolfstud, who also plays Viola’s nurse) enters, the chorus sings “Vivat Regina.”

Montclair’s Rick Sordelet, who serves as fight director, provides theatrical renaissance fights (he gets around: he also staged fights on “Carrie the Musical” at Montclair State University also, and it’s a good bet his name will be on some Broadway shows this season).

Period dance with gorgeously costumed actors (here, by Nikkie Delhomme. You’ll leave wanting a cloak) always feeds the eye. In “Shakespeare in Love,” dancing is a little silly and a lot romantic. Danielle Liccardo served as period dance consultant. For Shakespeare lovers, and there are bound to be many at a theater named for the bard, there is also the game of “catch the epigram”: “Out, damned spot!” someone says to a pesky dog. “A hit, a palpable hit!” someone says about the show.

The Queen’s Guardsman (Javon Johnson), Queen Elizabeth I (Erika Rolfsrud), and Tilney (Colin McPhillamy) interrogate Viola de Lesseps ( Whitney Maris Brown). COURTESY JERRY DALIA

Director Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre, helmed this production with a keen eye for timing, and emphasis. There are many scene changes: the two-level set (an exquisite design by Brian Clinnin) serves as theatre, tavern, court, Lady Viola’s house. Using some live music, some recorded, and glowing light changes (emotionally evocative lights by Steven Rosen; music direction by Kris Kukul), Monte keeps the action building. It’s a large company: 20 actors (some playing multiple roles), plus a dog (Queen Elizabeth loves dogs), and a two-hour, 45-minute script. It’s gorgeous to see a large story so fully fleshed out.

The story centers on young Lady Viola de Lesseps, who loves plays and poetry so much she poses as a boy to audition for William Shakespeare. But the bard has promised the same play to a few creditors. And Viola’s father has arranged her to be married to Lord Wessex, a caddish man with a title (Marcus Dean Fuller fleshes the role out nicely). Shakespeare has a friendly rivalry with fellow writer Christopher Marlowe (Anthony Marble), whose “Faustus” is used by every auditioner.

Right at the top of the play, Shakespeare, a harried, handsome-for-a-nerd Jon Barker, struggles to write a sonnet: “Shall I compare thee to a…” He holds out his hands, fishing for the next word. Barker, in his 10th season with STNJ, plays Shakespeare as more kind than genius. It’s Marlowe who comes in and comes up with “summer’s day,” and when Shakespeare complains that “darling buds of May” doesn’t work because it’s in the spring, it’s Marlowe who says “but it rhymes.” Too bad these two never wrote a play together. Or did they? There’s a lovely balcony scene where Marlowe is a sort of Cyrano to Shakespeare’s Christian, feeding the poet lines with which to woo Viola.

The play also subtly but clearly shows us Marlowe’s homosexuality, with his comic greetings of “Hello, young man” to various boys. Marble shows us Marlowe’s dignity and creativity.

As Viola, Maris Brown captures the character’s idealism and innocence, though at times she is shouty.

Henslowe (Edmond Genest) always knows it will work out, somehow. Talking with Shakespeare (Jon Barker). COURTESY JERRY DALIA

Smaller roles are perfection.

Lawson lifts the heart as gallant Alleyn, and as the slighted actor Richard Burbage, David Andrew Macdonald shows a lion heart when he offers his own theater to the company that cheated him.

The play, as is the film, is richer if you’re familiar with “Romeo and Juliet” and “Twelfth Night.”

But it doesn’t depend on it: “Shakespeare in Love” is a love story, a comedy, and a backstage drama.

Edmond Genest, a Shakespeare Theatre favorite in his 21st season (“A Song at Twilight,” “The Devil’s Disciple,” “Trelawny of the Wells”) makes every line manager Henslowe delivers simply hilarious (this is the role that won Geoffrey Rush his second Academy Award). Henslowe gets to repeat the lines about how it always works out in the theater. How will it? he’s asked. The answer: “It’s a mystery.”

It is, and director Monte knows it, and so, clearly, does the company.