Poor Will has a problem in Shakespeare in Love at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
He’s writing a play titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.”
It involves pirates because the producer wants pirates and includes a dog because Queen Elizabeth likes to see a dog. But the big problem is writer’s block. Will’s stuck on “Shall I compare THOU.”
Fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe leans in and suggests, not thou but “thee.” So it becomes “Shall I compare thee,” but Will is still stuck until Marlowe offers “to a summer’s day.”
If that doesn’t quite crack you up, it helps to recall that critics suspicious of Shakespeare’s genius offered Marlowe as an alternative author.
Anyway, this scene sets up a very entertaining transformation of the ill-fated Ethel to Juliet sans pirates as Will falls in love and finds the path to Romeo and Juliet. Along the way, director Jeff Horger paves that path with brilliant staging and casting as Lee Hall’s adaptation of the honored screenplay ranges from delightful word play to sweet romance and swashbuckling farce.
So many perfect touches make it all work together. For example, that tussle with “Shall I compare thee” works wonderfully because Jacob Roman makes Shakespeare a believably callow fellow, and Jeremy Earl, with his suave presence and great voice, makes Marlowe a believable source of his genius.
While Roman and Alissa Hanish (Viola) fare well as the romantic leads, the quality of other characters has even more to do with the success of this production. In addition to Earl, Michael Leamen as the savvy actor Ned Alleyn and Kevin Barratt as another of Will’s theatrical contemporaries, Richard Burbage, give a high gloss of professionalism to the cast.
Leamen, like Earl, is one of those performers whose every move and utterance entertains. But perhaps the most surprising contribution comes from music director Zach Kloppenborg, whose vocal soloes were almost ethereal in their high-ranging beauty.
And as I run down memorable performances I fear piling superlative upon superlative before exhausting the list. Horger cast several women in male roles and all excelled, but Sydney Readman as Lord Wessex most impressively added to her growing reputation as one of our most accomplished actors.
I was smitten with her lead role in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and didn’t easily recognize her as the foppish Wessex, a man determined to wed Viola despite her resistance. With limp hand ever raised high, Readman successfully deprived us of her bright smile as she grimly pursued Viola, the lass vying for a place in all-male theater.
Other standouts include Caitlon Mabon, as both Sir Robert and the boatman; Christopher Scott as Henslowe, indebted producer backing Will’s play; Ron Boschult as Fennyman and eighth-grader Chloe Irwin as a delightfully brash lad. Every member of the ensemble gets a time or two in the spotlight and makes the most of it, such as the moment when young Sam (Will Rodgers) returns to the stage aglow after a virginal romp.
I’ve consciously saved the best for last. The dog. Apollo, the director’s dog. Not that the dog was the best. He was just being a dog, a busy little pug, and that’s quite enough to please those of us who love dogs.
But I have director Jeff Horger’s word for it that the cast member who deserves a special place in heaven is Catherine Vasquez who played Mistress Quickly. She is the dog wrangler who wrestles the chunky Apollo into her arms when his begging gets too insistent.
The Queen likes a dog, we were told, but Janet Macklin, while providing a properly regal Elizabeth, didn’t have to handle Apollo. So, bravo Ms. Vasquez, and apologies to the two lead characters for dwelling so long on their supporting players that I’ve done injustice to their fine performances.
But it’s easy to forget gentler qualities amidst sword fights, playing keep-away with Will’s manuscript and opening a trap door to stuff someone in the cellar.
Shakespeare in Love runs through May 6 on the Hawks Main Stage of the Omaha Community Playhouse at 69th and Cass with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $32 adults, $22 students ($24 and $18 Wednesdays). Call 402.553.0800 or visit omahaplayhouse.com.