Insight’s ‘Shakespeare in Love’ Has Good Performances But Fails to Froth

By CB Adams
Contributing Writer
Insight Theatre Company’s current production of “Shakespeare In Love” is a play by Lee Hall lifted from an Academy Award-winning Best Picture rom-commy movie screenplay written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman that in turn ganked some of the Bard’s best bits to weave a mildly picaresque tale of the young, horny, broke, writer-blocked playwright.

Young Will needs inspiration to unlock his writer’s block, for his new play’s deadline looms. He finds his muse in Viola, his greatest admirer who has no qualms about breaking the law to appear in his next play.

It’s a what-if costume dramedy that plays, at times, like a pantalooned parody, and at other times like a twee and sympathy satire of the pesky business side of theater productions – then and now, ala “The Producers.”

Photo by John Lamb

Thanks in no small way to the imperious, commanding, standout performance of Wendy Renee Greenwood as Queen Elizabeth, the key conflict of Insight’s production relies on a wager made by her royal highness with Lord Wessex, played by Ted Drury: “Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?”

Me thinks not with this production, but, god knows, the cast tries. Director Suki Peters had at her disposal a strong cast of St. Louis talent, including Joneal Joplin (Fennyman), Whit Reichert (Henslowe), Aaron Dodd (Will Shakespeare) and Gwendolyn Wotawa as the Bard’s love interest, Viola De Lesseps.

Each of these actors individually provided generally solid performances. And  part of the problem: they seemed to be reciting their lines into a mirror rather than interacting with a comfortable synergy and familiar chemistry.

Whit Reichert, Joneal Joplin. Photo by John Lamb

Opening night on Thursday (technically preview) felt too often like a table read or early dress rehearsal rather than a well-oiled, polished, ready-for-prime-time performance. In short, they don’t cohere, they don’t froth.

Besides the aforementioned Greenwood’s archly funny and confident embodiment of Queen Elizabeth, Wotawa’s Viola was charming and passionate with an Emma Thompson vibe and Dodd’s Shakespeare showed impressive range and physicality. His shirtless scenes revealed a tatted-up Bard – who knew?!

Aaron Dodd, Spencer Sickmann. Photo by John Lamb

Another highlight of the performance was Spencer Sickmann as Christopher Marlowe. In fact, the performance’s best moments involved the lively bro-y banterings between him and Dodd. Similarly, Michelle Hand’s Nurse was the perfect foil for the impulsive, cross-dressing, rule-breaking Viola.

It’s hard not to use the sumptuous costuming of the film as the standard for this dramedy, yet costume designer and wardrobe mistress did a commendable job by dressing the cast with a creative plethora of corsets, doublets, stockings and ribbons – as well as more parachuting pantaloons than an MC Hammer music video.  

At the conclusion of the final scene, which flatly keys off the tragic ending of Shakespeare’s own “Romeo and Juliet,” Queen Elizabeth’s earlier challenge seems to have answered her own question and provided an apt assessment of this production: “I bear witness to the wager, and will be the judge of it as occasion arises. I have not seen anything to settle it yet.”

“Shakespeare In Love” plays at the Grandel Theatre Aug, 29 – Sept. 15, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com

Photo by John Lamb

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