Faux Shakespeare in Love

In William Goldman's novel The Princess Bride, the author claims not to have written the book. Instead, he maintains that he has merely abridged the work of another author into what he calls the "good parts" version. In his editorial wisdom, he leaves out the serious parts and focuses only on the action stuff. If one were to decide to write a "good parts" version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it might come out looking something like Ryan J-W Smith's Sweet Love Adieu. Except that no one dies. And there is a wacky mistaken-identity scene involving cross-dressing.

Now playing at Theater Row's Lion Theater, Sweet Love Adieu is a new comedy written in rhyming verse. Like Shakespeare, Smith knows a good story line when he hears it, borrows liberally, and makes it his own. The language is modern, but elements of the plot are as old as Elizabethan England, Renaissance Italy, even ancient Greece.

In this story is William, a lovestruck youth, whose friends chide him for his devotion to Hannah, who promptly dumps him. He is immediately back in love again when he catches the eye of the lovely Anne. Unfortunately, Anne is also being pursued by the powerful but undesirable…

Is any of this sounding familiar? I hope so. It's all there, from a masquerade to a balcony scene to a potion provided by a friar. This is a comedy, though, so we do not have all those messy deaths and sad endings. Smith does add a few flourishes (mostly comedic touches, like the cross-dressing and the bombastic comic relief of Lord Edmund), and many of them can also be seen in, say, Twelfth Night or The Merry Wives of Windsor. (The Oberon Theater Ensemble is running Sweet Love Adieu in repertory with <a href= http://offoffonline.com/reviews.php?id=975 Merry Wives. )

As Anne, Amanda McCroskery is pleasant enough, but Marcel Simoneau's William is utterly captivating. Kenneth Cavett's Lord Edmund is humorously diabolical and diabolically humorous. Amanda Nichols, Eve Udesky, Tom Lapke, and Walter Brandes (watch for him in drag!) provide delightful support as the young lovers' respective entourages.

Ashley Springer's Sidney is droll as the beleaguered servant, and Dyanne Court has too small a role as Anne's mother. Charlie Moss, however, threatens to steal the whole play every time he appears either as a surprisingly self-aware Chorus, scheming Magistrate, or Friar with a propensity to take the Lord's name in vain. Director Don Harvey has brought together the 10-person cast into such a strong ensemble that one just has to mention them all by name. Harvey also finds the right tone for the piece, neither too joking nor too sincere.

Smith is no Shakespeare, but that cannot be held against him, for who is? His verse conveys the story in clear language, updating everything from poetic imagery about fate to bawdy jokes and scatological references. Using a modern vocabulary (the average person uses a fraction of the number of words that Shakespeare did), he avoids the pitfalls of embarrassing colloquialisms and groan-worthy topical references that plague many such plays. What he has done is to create a cute little love story out of bits and pieces with which we are already familiar. His ambitions are perhaps a bit modest, but he is correspondingly successful in his achievements.

Sharon Huizinga's lights help create more diverse worlds than what the Lion's small stage allows. The dominant feature of Ace Eure's set is a large red bench center stage, which functions as everything from balcony to bier. Smaller benches line either side of the stage, where actors sit and watch when not in the scene. The cast brings all this out at the top of the first act. The whole design is certainly an attempt to recreate the simple stagecraft of Shakespeare's day, also with the sense of traveling players who perform wherever they stop. It also suggests, however, a very modern minimalism and carries with it a strong whiff of what we today call meta-theater.

All the technical aspects add to this feeling of modern/Elizabethan conflation. Of particular note is the extraordinary costume design by Carrmen Wrenn, which uses everyday clothing to create a sort of stylized Elizabethan look. A creatively torn sweater and jeans can stand in for doublet and hose. Yes, even jockstraps function as codpieces. Also, the sound design by Gennaro Marletta III mixes period-style instrumentals with cheesy pop love songs.

The choice of music at intermission is indicative of the production's feel as a whole. Indeed, any show that features Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" definitely earns my seal of approval.

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