The People’s Light production of Shakespeare in Love opens with a striking introduction to the acting ensemble that is about to engage us. Through director Matt Pfeiffer’s detailed and enchanting tableau reveal, we immediately understand that this group also reflects Shakespeare’s own troupe of actors, struggling to mount his most recent effort, Romeo and Juliet.
Nothing could be more appropriate, since this marvelous ensemble truly drives the show.
The play is Lee Hall’s adaptation of the Oscar-winning film written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, a preeminent dramatist since the 1970s. It employs Stoppard’s typically silly and subtle humor while aiming straight at the heart of the human points he seeks to make.
The production features the usual strong work of People’s Light regulars Mark Lazar and Stephen Novelli and splendid contributions from Melanye Finister and Mary Elizabeth Scallen, respectively portraying Queen Elizabeth I and the Nurse. A special treat was watching them leap the cross-gender line as male bar-room denizens and actors.
Dan Hodge, Jahzeer Terrell, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh all stand out in principal roles. Terrell possesses a powerful presence. As such, he’s smartly cast as Elizabethan superstar Ned Alleyn. Ebrahimzadeh (Marlowe) provides one of the evening’s most memorable performances, effortlessly stealing scenes with a glance or throwaway line. Add Anthony Lawton (Burbage), one of Philly’s best actors in his People’s Light debut (what took so long?), and this is, indeed, a cast both skilled and deep.
All are to be further commended for assuming one of acting’s greatest challenges: sharing a stage with an animal — a dog (program name Bobby Sheffield), an improviser extraordinaire, who arguably exhibited the night’s most consistent British accent.
Such an impressive ensemble requires commensurate strength from its male and female leads. Here, the ingenue, Taysha Marie Canales (Viola), delivers an earnest but uneven performance, working a bit broadly in comedic sequences and having better success when dealing with Shakespeare’s verse, the story’s later romantic elements, and in resisting her suitor, Wessex (played with flourish by Justin Jain). Jaime Maseda (Shakespeare) commendably serves as the play’s central figure but offers a somewhat general interpretation. He and Canales literally race through the climactic discovery scene of Act I, giving neither their emerging affections nor Shakespeare’s verse the necessary focus and depth.
But along with the stunning ensemble work, Pfeiffer’s production partners worked in an expansive harmony, enhancing the brilliant staging. Paige Hathaway’s scenic design suggested an unfinished elegance, facilitated movement, and flexibly supported changes in mood. Lighting ( by Lily Fossner) and sound textured and reinforced transitions in time and locale. A small upstage orchestra “pit,” featuring Barrymore-winner Alex Bechtel’s original music, provided a momentary hideaway for actors also making instrumental contributions (including Pax Ressler’s fine vocal work). Eli Lynn’s dueling sequences were crisp and cleverly conceived.
The production surprised me — in a good way. As one who worries about the American theatre’s capacity to generate new work, the concern persists that we need to generate more original storylines. Seasons are often filled with revivals, reworked narratives, juke box musicals, and stage plays inspired by film, rather than vice-versa. The dramaturg’s note by Alix Rosenfeld reminds us that adaptation — with Shakespeare the ultimate purveyor — is a long-standing hallmark of theater tradition. Rendered with the skill and artistry that People’s Light brings to this effort, it helps put such concerns to rest.
Shakespeare in Love
Through March 29 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern.
Tickets: Starting at $35.
Information: 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org