The idea of William Shakespeare struggling with writer's block — "Shall I compare thee to a … something … something" — made a pretty clever premise for the 1998 film "Shakespeare in Love" that snared seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. For another affirmation of the gag's potency, check out the adaptation of that screen hit now cavorting on the boards at Baltimore Center Stage.
Movie-to-stage ventures do not always turn out well — remember "Dirty Dancing"? — but this one manages to stand surely and entertainingly on its own.
Lee Hall, whose credits include the screenplay to "Billy Elliot" (and the book and lyrics for the musical version), did a first-rate job of adapting Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's Oscar-winning screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love." Hall preserves the freshness and spirit of the original, while ensuring a natural, distinctive theatricality.
It's fun following the fallow Bard as he slowly regains his footing, egged along by rival Christopher Marlowe and inspired by an unknown actor who auditions for a role in the premiere of that beloved theatrical classic "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter." (How the beleaguered Shakespeare wends his way to a more familiar title and scenario provides much of the fuel here.)
The pleasures of Hall's script include delectable anachronisms and refreshing ways to underline the ever-enticing, ever-crazy world of theater. I especially love how the presence of Marlowe allows for zinging age-old conspiracies about the true author of Shakespeare's works (and dropping casual references to Marlowe's likewise much-debated private life).
It says something that "Shakespeare in Love" is the most-produced play on the 2017-2018 season schedule nationally, according to data compiled by American Theatre magazine. One of the 15 productions wrapped up a run at the Cincinnati Playhouse at the end of September before heading, practically lock, stock and sonnet, to Center Stage.
Cincinnati Playhouse artistic director Blake Robison reveals a deft comic touch and impeccable timing in directing his large, flavorful cast. But along with ensuring that the laughs land readily, Robison never slights the "in love" part of this rom-com's title. The staging ends up with a nice little undercoating of lyricism that periodically shines through the antics and linguistic flourishes.
Nicholas Carriere brings a tall-dark-and-handsome dash to the role of Will, and he's totally at home with the nearly nonstop shtick, verbal and physical. The actor dynamically communicates the frustrations and satisfactions that go with the creative process, making the assorted tensions in Act 2 doubly effective.
As Viola de Lesseps, the well-born woman desperate to get onto the stage (only males were allowed at the time), Emily Trask offers considerable charm to go with the guile. And she tellingly reveals the weight of Viola's fate — an arranged marriage blocks multiple avenues of pleasure for her.
Michael Brusasco nails the pomposity and entitlement of Wessex, Viola's intended husband. John Plumpis is Fennyman, the moneybags whose interest in backing a new play rises considerably when offered a small role. Avery Glymph is suave, if a little too laid back, as Marlowe. And Naomi Jacobsen strikes all the right notes and poses as Queen Elizabeth.
Barzin Akhavan shines as the harried Henslowe, the impresario whose taking of the public pulse leads him to give Shakespeare the priceless advice, "Comedy, love — and a bit with a dog. That's what they want." To illustrate, the cast includes a cute canine playing the role of Spot, a name that inevitably prompts a droll allusion to a certain Shakespeare play.
I hope the sole child actor in the ensemble gets better at articulating lines, but that's a minor matter amid all other sure, vivid efforts.
Tim Mackabee's set, evoking London's Old Globe, and Kathleen Geldard's expert costumes add much to this diverting frolic, which, given the general state of the world, is all the more welcome.
If you go
"Shakespeare in Love" runs through Nov. 26 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $20 to $84. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.