Jon Patrick O’Brien & BeeBee Patillo in Shakespeare in Love. Photo: Bill Brymer

Shakespeare in Love

Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, with music by Paddy Cunneen
Directed by Matt Wallace

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

As a film, Shakespeare in Love was very popular with audiences and won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1998, as well as Oscars for Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), and Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell). Yet a certain…prejudice against it can be found amongst some United States citizens. In his highly positive assessment of the film, noted film scholar and British-born David Thomson has said, “American friends are shocked that I rate this so highly. Is it that the English long to love their Will?”

So do Americans, but could we perhaps be bigger snobs about it than the Brits? In any event, Shakespeare in Love is a delightful paratext to the Bard’s plays, one which unabashedly is smitten with them and all of their rich language, cribbing from the texts to elevate its own quality while also poking a bit of fun at the most performed playwright in history.

The story imagines Will (Jon Patrick O’Brien), a writer who is blocked, in search of his muse, and she arrives in the form of Viola de Lesseps (BeeBee Patillo). In classic Shakespearean gender-swapping, Viola dresses as a boy, Thomas Kent, in order to be cast in his new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, which is being written as rehearsals commence. It doesn’t take long for Will to discover Viola’s true identity and begin a love affair that slowly changes the play until it becomes the great tragic love story that we have known for the past 400 years.

Of course, there are complications. Will is unhappily married and Viola is promised to the selfish and unkind Lord Wessex (Zachary Burrell, relishing the villainy) who values the dowry over the woman. Arranged marriage and the law against women acting point to the feminist underpinnings of the story. The same-sex attraction remains safely hidden behind masquerade but several kisses push the matter beyond what Shakespeare ever allowed. In the movie, this scene occurs after Will knows Kent’s true identity so he is kissing the woman he loves, in this adaptation it falls before that knowledge so that Will finds it curious to be aroused by a man.

Reversing the traditional direction of adapting a play for film, Lee Hall has made greater use of the character of Christopher Marlowe (a smart and lively Braden Campbell), arguably the more celebrated writer at the time, and changes the structure and chronology of events. More of Marlowe works very well and invites a wink and a nod to the controversial notion that Shakespeare did not actually write his plays, but the shifting of the narrative makes a mess of the 2nd act. In the film, the opening performance of Romeo & Juliet is a powerful celebration of love’s inspiration and a joyous celebration of the theatrical experience, but Hall’s update is awkward and casts the performance as just-short-of-disaster. And the introduction to that scene of Wessex and Tilney, Master of the Revels (J. Barrett Cooper being perfectly supercilious) are needlessly complicated so that their impact is undermined.

The original screenplay was by Marc Norman, and then Tom Stoppard brought his signature wit and understanding to it, but Hall has forced mundane notes into its resolution. Fortunately, he manages a thoughtful denouement with the two playwright friends to end things gracefully.

Matt Wallace’s production endeavors to iron out these lumpy parts but never quite sticks the landing, but there are many pleasures contained therein. Donna Lawrence Downs maintains her reputation as the finest and most dependable costume designer in town; I particularly enjoyed how she dressed Marlowe, Henslow (Gregory Maupin exercising his sharp comedy chops), and Queen Elizabeth I (an uproarious Jennifer Pennington). And Karl Anderson’s sets serve as both front and backstage with aplomb.

A canine performer named Barkley Ellis proves the adage about sharing the stage with dogs and children, and Austin Ramirez reinforces it as a seemingly minor character. Both are guilty of stealing their scenes with natural charm.

As for the mature cast members, Jon O’Brien captured the frustration of the artist and the lover in equal measure, a man always in some degree of conflict and rarely, if ever, at ease. BeeBee Patillo makes for a lovely Viola and a credible Thomas Kent. As Richard Burbage, Henslow’s competition, Brian Hinds is funny, no surprise there, but he also makes the most of a crucial speech about the inherent bond among players, delivering it with nuance and feeling that reach beyond the text. Tyler Tate as Ned Alleyn,  the preening star of the Rose Theatre’s company of actors, renders a succinct and authoritative comic portrait of the actor’s vanity laid over a true artist’s heart.

Featuring Hunter Broyles, Zachary Burrell, Ashley Nicole Cabrera, J. Barrett Cooper, Barkley Ellis, Alex Gordon, Brian Hinds, Jon Huffman, Abigail Bailey Maupin, Gregory Maupin, Braden McCampbell. Molly Murk, Jon Patrick O’Brien, BeeBee Patillo, Jennifer Pennington, Monte Priddy, Austin Ramirez, Tony Reimonenq III, Tyler Tate, Shaquille Towns, & Kyle Ware        

Shakespeare in Love

June 16 – July 4, & July 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, & 31, 2021

Shakespeare Festival in Central Park
C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater
1340 S. Fourth St.
Louisville, KY 40208
(502) 574-990

Henry V opens July 8 – 20, then July 22, 24, 28, 30, & August 1.

Admission is free. Everyone welcome, including pets.
Food trucks open at 6:30 pm; Will’s Tavern begins serving at 7:00 pm
Pre-Show begins at 7:15 pm, with main stage production at 8:00 pm

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM /, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music, and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for