Review: ‘Shakespeare in Love’ is a ‘home run homage to the Bard’

A scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2017 production of "Shakespeare in Love," Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Karl Hugh, courtesy of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News

REVIEW — Who knows why it has taken nearly 20 years for the stage adaptation of “Shakespeare in Love” to arrive, but the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s delightful version proves to be worth the wait.

The well-known film that won the Oscar for best picture (controversially beating out “Saving Private Ryan”) is followed closely in Lee Hall’s brilliant stage adaptation of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay. Coupled with director Brian Vaughn’s lively direction, the festival’s version is lighter, funnier and overall more entertaining than the excellent movie.

Quinn Mattfeld (left) as Will Shakespeare and Betsy Mugavero as Viola de Lesseps in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2017 production of “Shakespeare in Love,”
Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Karl Hugh, courtesy of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News

This heightened comic spirit is no doubt aided by the choice of veteran festival actor Quinn Mattfield as the Bard – a self-deprecating, worrisome author, who, when the play opens, is experiencing writer’s block. Mattfield is less the brooding, soulful Shakespeare portrayed by Joseph Fiennes in the film and more the hilariously tortured soul, owning to Mattfield’s superlative comic gifts.

With Mattfield on stage you never know how many of his humorous choices are improvisational, but that works perfectly in this part-farce, part-parody, part-romantic drama.

As Bard groupie Viola, who dares defy the prohibition against women on stage, Betsy Mugavero displays a winsome comic touch herself. Whether pretending to be male wannabe actor Thomas Kent or displaying the necessary radiance as Juliet, who inspires Shakespeare’s legendary tragedy of “two star cross’d lovers,” Mugavero shines. (Not coincidentally, Mugavero, married to co-star Mattfield offstage, was also cast as Capulet’s daughter in Utah Shakespeare Festival’s “Romeo and Juliet” this season.)

The role of fellow writer, nemesis, and loyal friend Kit Marlowe is beefed up for the stage adaptation, and Shane Kenyon masterfully performs the weightier character with panache.

The musical embellishments are subtle but significant, and the costumes are customarily excellent.

The festival’s “Shakespeare in Love” is a little too long, but it is rarely dull and is a perfectly pleasant primer for those new to Shakespeare’s work. It’s a celebratory affirmation for festival veterans who will relish the hilarious fictional backstory of a legend’s struggle to find his gift while discovering his true love in the process.

On this cloudless night at the outdoor Elizabethan-style Engelstad Theater, now in its sophomore year, one can’t imagine a better venue in which to witness this home run homage to the Bard.

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Event details

  • What: Utah Shakespeare Festival’s “Shakespeare in Love.”
  • Where: Engelstad Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, 299 W. Center St., Cedar City.
  • When: Runs through Sept. 8, in revolving repertory with other shows.
  • Tickets: $32 to $77, with discounts for groups, students and seniors; 1-800-752-9849 (PLAYTIX) or www.bard.org.

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