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THEATER REVIEW Shakespeare in Love
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Lee Hall, adapted from Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard. At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier. Tickets: 312-595-5600;; $58-$88. Runs through: June 11

As we always said about my late Aunt Anne, the world's sweetest woman, "So what's not to like?" If you loved the original 1998 movie of Shakespeare in Love, you'll love this stage adaptation. If you never saw the movie, you'll love this lavishly designed live version. If you hated the movie ... wait, that's impossible. It's hard to believe the vivid and thoroughly enjoyable film original is 20 years old.

For those unfamiliar with it, Shakespeare in Love concerns a young playwright-on-the-make in the competitive world of London theater in 1593. Suffering writer's block and short on cash, Will Shakespeare ( Nick Rehberger ) finds inspiration in the arms of a beautiful, strong-willed, intelligent, wealthy young woman ( Kate McGonigle ) who is destined to marry Lord Wessex ( deliciously supercilious Dennis Grimes ). Shakes himself has a wife and kids back in Stratford, so the relationship never can be more than a blazing meteor that burns out, but out of it comes Shakespeare's early romantic hit Romeo and Juliet. An aging Queen Elizabeth I ( imperious Linda Reiter ) is present, as well as sexually ambiguous Christopher Marlowe ( charming Michael Perez ), Will's friend and fellow dramatist.

Author Lee Hall has adapted Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's screenplay for the stage, retaining all the wit and fancy of the original as well as cinematic fluidity and speed. The revolving scenic design by Scott Davis and lighting by Robert Wierzel provide an ever-changing landscape for a seamless scene-to-scene flow. Director Rachel Rockwell quite smartly treats the whole thing as if it were a musical, perhaps in part because she's best known as a musical director and choreographer. The group scenes are carefully choreographed to the incidental music of composer Neil Bartram, and there is a lot of music as if it were underscoring a film. Matt Hawkins provides swashbuckling and skillful fight choreography. ( Did I mention there are several sword fights? ) Susan E. Mickey's beautiful Elizabethan-era costumes run the gamut from fairly plain and practical for Will to colorful peacock outfits for the likes of Wessex and Queen Elizabeth.

The cast is top-notch across the board and ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek which absolutely is the correct tone for this show, with Rehberger and McGonigle being a handsome and passionate pair as the star-crossed lovers. The supporting players are colorful masters of ( mostly ) comedy, among them Larry Yando ( a study in droll scene-stealing ) as theater impresario Henslowe.

Shakespeare in Love is a wonderful film romp and it works just as well live on stage, maybe even better. I can't explain why—it's a mystery.

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