The Actors’ Repertory Theatre Ensemble’s production of “March Tale” at the Castle Theatre presents an enchanting little story — several stories, actually, deftly interwoven — about Shakespeare in love, Shakespeare’s actors in love, and even Queen Elizabeth in love. There are also some strong themes of family devotion and, yes, love’s labor’s lost.
An ailing Queen Elizabeth (Kathryn Laycock Little) calls upon William Shakespeare (Peter Biggs) and his actors, Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to perform “The Merry Wives of Windsor” for her. No problem, except that the only man fat and boisterous enough to play Falstaff is William Kemp (Thom Duncan), who had a falling out with Shakespeare a while back and left the troupe.
Luring him back with flattery and money, the troupe heads to London to perform — much to the dismay of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne (Shawnda Moss), for whom Will does all this work so she can live a comfortable life, but with whom he never has time to enjoy it. (“I don’t think I know any Ã…â€™merry wives,'” she says derisively upon hearing which play is being performed.)
But Will cannot be kept from the quill and the stage, and so he endeavors to write a play for Anne, a sequel to “Love’s Labour’s Lost” called “Love’s Labour’s Won.” Never mind that Anne has no interest in plays or theater; she just wants her husband.
Meanwhile, one of the actors, Tom (Jared V. Stull) becomes smitten with Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting Emilia (Shelly T. Graham), who is smitten in return. As it happens, she’s currently importuning the queen for permission not to marry the man to whom she is betrothed, and if Elizabeth would just grant that request, she’d be all set.
As luck would have it, the hot-tempered Kemp injures a young boy who was set to play Lady Anne in “Merry Wives” (remember, even the women’s roles were played by men in those days). Seizing the opportunity, and with the help of gal-pal Cecilia (Melissa Condren), Emilia dresses up as a boy and becomes a woman playing a man playing a woman — and playing opposite her beloved Tom.
That plot device (and a few smaller elements) is similar to the film “Shakespeare in Love”; however, “March Tale” predates that movie by several years, so any connection is either coincidental or plagiaristic on the part of Miramax. (Which it is depends on whom you ask, and I’m not going to get into it.)
Graham and Stull’s romance as Emilia and Tom is intentionally fluffy, though both play their roles with energy and great pleasantness, directed with an eye for light-hearted comedy by J. Scott Bronson. Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne book-ends the whole thing, yet the resolution there is not entirely satisfying. We catch what the outcome is, eventually, but we’re not entirely sure THEY caught it. Biggs is perhaps a bit too understated as Shakespeare, reacting too mildly even when the grossest injustices ar done to him. If it’s because he’s realized it doesn’t really matter, that feeling is not conveyed.
The one to watch is the majestic and beautiful Kathryn Laycock Little as Queen Elizabeth, whose feelings we learn of gradually, granting us great sympathy for the very human monarch. It is this character that gives the play resonance.
Much humor is to be found in Shakespeare’s players, and particularly with the foul, Falstaffian Kemp. (“By St. Lucy’s holy armpits!” he swears, amidst other saint-based profanities.) Thom Duncan is altogether perfect in this role, playing it to the hilt and adding yet another dimension of comic black-heartedness to this uncomplicated but intelligent comedy (and tragedy) of errors.
A fine play that almost went unreviewed. I couldn't come opening night due to other commitments, so I planned to come on the preview night. That, however, was rained out, and apparently not all the costume elements were fully in place anyway. (There are a lot of codpieces in this show. More than in, say, "Death of a Salesman.") Then, the night I did see it, we had torrential rain earlier in the day, causing some to fear another rain-out would occur. But no, the skies cleared and it became a beautiful evening, a lovely time to be outdoors watching a vaguely smutty Shakespearean-style play.
A few things were omitted from this review when it was published, due to space constraints. Just so you know.