“Shakespeare in Love,” or How Romeo and Juliet Came to Be

Shakespeare seems to be taking the Baltimore area by storm this season, and Center Stage is no exception from that trend. “Shakespeare in Love,” based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, is currently charming theatregoers at the fourth floor Head Theater. A celebration of the creativity and newness that often accompanies the theatre, “Shakespeare in Love” tells the fictional story of the creation of “Romeo and Juliet.”

The play begins with William Shakespeare (Nicholas Carriere) as he tries to write another play while in the middle of a spirit-crushing case of writer’s block. He puts singular lines of a play together before being forced to conduct auditions, during which he meets Viola (Emily Trask), who, disguised as a man, has come to audition for Shakespeare’s new play. Viola has previously seen Shakespeare’s plays performed at court, and she has fallen in love with the language and the poetry of his work.

Shakespeare casts her as Romeo after she performs a monologue from “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and, as rehearsals begin and her identity is revealed, the two begin a love affair that helps fuel the remainder of the play. She is promised to another, however, and as Shakespeare comes to terms with her departure from his life, he promises to immortalize her forever in a new play called “Twelfth Night.”

The show is punctuated with wit — wit that is smart, quick, physical and mental. As Shakespeare’s cast of actors take up their mantle, they are often met with a humor most agreeable to the time period as well as to the enjoyment of the audience. Actors Richard Buchanan (Sam) and Taha Mandiviwala (Peter) shine especially with their comedic timing and do not distract from the show.

While Carriere’s and Trask’s chemistry together was certainly palpable, Carriere’s portrayal of Shakespeare was missing an element of potency in his softer and more exposed moments onstage, which often detracted from the overall vulnerability of the moment. During intermission, several audience members expressed Carriere’s performance being less like the movie than they had hoped, a choice that distinguishes Carriere’s portrayal of Shakespeare and makes him his own.

The costumes, designed by Kathleen Geldard, were absolutely exquisite, but none more exquisite than those worn by Naomi Jacobsen as Queen Elizabeth I. The dresses truly take one’s breath away. The two-level set, designed by Tim Mackabee, was equally innovative, and the multiple levels left room for increased shenanigans between cast members and, of course, a balcony scene for Shakespeare and Viola.

Director Blake Robison’s commitment to diversity throughout casting was especially refreshing considering the limited number of female-presenting roles within this play. Perhaps the star of the show, however, was the delightful Chihuahua, Meatball, played by a real-life Chihuahua named Spot. He made his acting debut in “Shakespeare in Love” and certainly managed to impress the queen, so this good boy will surely be offered many more parts in future productions.

Tickets to “Shakespeare in Love” are available on their website and sold between $20 and $74. The show runs until November 26, and Center Stage is located at 700 North Calvert Street.