Try saying ‘Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter’ as the name of a play by William Shakespeare.
After hearing that phrase in ‘Shakespeare in Love’ at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and thinking “you’ve got to be kidding,” the reason for the nutty title makes sense if willing to accept that the bard started out like an embryonic chick breaking through its eggshell rather than a fully developed hen ready to produce offspring.
Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay of the same title, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ starts with a young, struggling but talented Will Shakespeare.
He’s under pressure to hand over a new play to two different sponsors but is unable to go beyond a beginning phrase and a working title with “Ethel” as the heroine.
In the witty minds of Norman and Stoppard, Will needs help from friends, foes and rivals to replace Ethel and pirates with better protagonists.
What develops is the play that eventually becomes his famed ‘Romeo and Juliet’ tragedy and also the germ of an idea that leads to the ‘Twelfth Night’ comedy.
Along the way, expertly guided by Director Rachel Rockwell and with spot-on portrayals from a talented cast, the Chicago Shakespeare version provides fascinating insight into the precarious profession of play writing and production, men-only acting companies and the lack of women’s rights in the sixteenth century England of Queen Elizabeth I.
Kate McGonigle is delightful as Shakespeare’s muse, Viola de Lesseps. She dresses as a boy to be Romeo in his new play, but unmasked, she is the inspiration for his Juliet. Viola is also the name of the heroine disguised as a male in ‘Twelfth Night.’
Nick Rehberger successfully depicts a somewhat bumbling, young, penniless Will Shakespeare who falls in love with Viola. He becomes so tongue tied talking to her he needs descriptive poetic phrases from his friend, playwright Kit Marlowe, well interpreted by Michael Perez.
Part of the fun of the play is that the characters, from theater owners and acting company managers to actors and playwrights, were real people back in Shakespeare’s time.
However, the play’s message turns out to be that the Romeo-style Will and Juliet-style Viola don’t turn to suicide just because their romance can’t lead to a happily-ever-after ending.
Viola has been pledged to a titled gentleman who wants her family’s money to establish plantations in Virginia so she has to leave England with him. Will is already married although he says they are separated.
Of course Chicago Shakespeare’s physical theater complemented by Scott Davis’ scenic design adds the right historic setting, but Susan E. Mickey’s wonderful period costumes are important to set the characters into their station in English life.
Details: ‘Shakespeare in Love’ is at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, now through June 11, 2017. For tickets and other information call (312) 595-5600 and visit Chicago Shakes.