The Play's the Thing: SMC Presents "Shakespeare in Love"
On the far side of a darkened stage, William Shakespeare sits hunched over his desk, quill in hand, as he struggles to write what would one day would become one of his most famous sonnets.
"Shall I compare thee to — to — a mummer's play?" Shakespeare says before being joined onstage by his fellow playwright, Christopher Marlowe, who suggests, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
Santa Monica College's (SMC) production of "Shakespeare in Love" is currently playing on the Main Stage in the Theatre Arts building. Based on the Academy Award-winning film of the same name, "Shakespeare in Love" tells the fictional story of how a young William Shakespeare wrote his most famed play, "Romeo and Juliet."
It seems only fitting that a tale of Shakespeare's life be performed on stage. Director Terrin Adair-Lynch stated that one of her motivations for choosing "Shakespeare in Love" was an interest in what little we know of Shakespeare's life.
"Some of the characters are historically correct, but the actual plotline is a bit of a fantasy. Could have been? We don't know. So I just think it's a fun piece."
Justin Winick, who plays the eponymous character, breathes life into Shakespeare, taking on the herculean task of embodying one of literature's most famous figures with grace and aplomb.
"Romeo and Juliet is known as one of the greatest plays of all time," Winnick said. "And even though it's a fantasy world, we're following a young Shakespeare as he, perhaps, how he wrote it. And I think watching him go through that journey and going through loss and love and all that throughout the play until he gets to a point where he is the Shakespeare that we know, I think that's part of the magic of it."
Opposite Winick is Teagan Sirset, who plays Viola de Lesseps, a young woman from a wealthy family who dreams of acting on stage. Since women were not allowed to be actors at the time, Viola is forced to dress as a man in order to perform in Shakespeare's play. Charming and sincere, Sirset shines as Viola, and every scene is elevated by her presence.
Though Shakespeare's language may seem daunting to audiences, Adair-Lynch was quick to emphasize the play's accessible nature. "A play like this is the perfect world because you have a little bit of Shakespeare and the rest of it is something that you know you can accomplish pretty relatively with some success," Adair-Lynch said.
A play as funny and witty as "Shakespeare in Love" hinges on the comedic talents of its cast. The production does not disappoint. Andres Sanchez, Simon Martin, Matthew Goodrich, and Jeremy McNeill Lee are all standouts. Adair-Lynch's two dogs are crowd-pleasers and perform with the poise of seasoned actors.
The sword fighting, both the choreography and the performance of it, is particularly impressive. Actors leap across the stage, swords flashing, in seemingly-impossible stunts, never wavering in their lunges and parries.
The production also makes clever use of a talented chorus to allow for costume changes, and the set-shifters are dressed as the fairies from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
On the surface, the play is a fun, mostly fictional, story of how "Romeo and Juliet" came to be. But beneath the follies and fancies of the actors involved is much more serious drama about a rapidly changing England. The conflict between the rising merchant class and the landed gentry is played out between Viola's father and Lord Wessex, to whom Viola is engaged.
Though Kent Navarrette's Wessex is a dapper, funny character, there is a starkly unfunny undercurrent of danger is his interactions with Viola, where the threat of assault is frighteningly implicit. Viola, like Wessex's tobacco plantations, is a commodity to be bought and sold. The only place where she has some semblance of freedom is onstage, where she must pretend to be a man.
"It's a very entertaining show," Sirset said. "It has everything that people would want to come to watch and be entertained. It's got the love, the action, the comedy...it's got the fight scenes, so it's all-encompassing. There's something for everyone."
"It's a big cast of great characters, with a little bit of historical accuracy and some large amount of fantasy about Shakespeare and how he comes of age," Adair-Lynch added.
Bolstered by strong performances all-around and impressive production values, "Shakespeare in Love" is a joyous celebration of Shakespeare's most famous work.
"Shakespeare in Love" will have additional performances on April 5, 6 at 8 p.m. and April 6, 7 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available for purchase online or in the Theatre Arts box office.