“Shakespeare in Love’’ actually revolves around two romances, not just one.
At the center of Lee Hall’s play, now receiving its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company, is the affair between the besotted Bard and a woman named Viola de Lesseps, who has disguised herself as a man so she can perform onstage. But what also courses unmistakably through “Shakespeare in Love’’ is a sheer love of theater and the eccentric, egotistical, obsessive, theatrical people who make it.
At one point, Viola, who is winningly played at SpeakEasy by Jennifer Ellis, declares to none other than Queen Elizabeth: “I love theater!’’ Underscoring the notion of theater-as-intoxicant, even a ruthless moneyman ultimately gets the acting bug and becomes hopelessly stage-struck.
An enjoyable, if slight, work that blends romantic comedy and backstage comedy, “Shakespeare in Love’’ is directed by Scott Edmiston with his customary elan. Edmiston ensures that the action flows with such verve that the clumsy parts of Hall’s sometimes-overly on-the nose script, adapted from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay for the 1998 film, are less bothersome than they otherwise might be.
(It’s probably best not to think about the fact that “Shakespeare in Love’’ won the Academy Award for best picture after an awards-season campaign orchestrated by one . . . Harvey Weinstein. To this day, many fervently argue that the Oscar should rightfully have gone to “Saving Private Ryan.’’)
George Olesky, a Newton native making his Boston debut, brings a rakish charm to the role of a youthful Shakespeare, in need of inspiration before he can fully come into his own as a writer. When we first see him, he is struggling with a sonnet, but soon resumes his efforts on a new play whose working title is, er, “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.’’ When the impatient owner of the Rose Theatre asks when he will get to see the play, Shakespeare replies: “As soon as I have found my muse.’’
He finds that muse in the person of Viola, albeit with mistaken-identity complications akin to those that crop up in Shakespeare’s dramas. Women being forbidden to perform onstage in Elizabethan England, Viola has disguised herself as a man named Thomas Kent to land a part in the play. (“Stage love will never be real love until we women can be onstage ourselves,’’ Viola tells her nurse.)
Whether as Thomas or Viola, Ellis displays her exceptional gift for seeming utterly alive in every scene she is in. That gift has led to a string of performances by Ellis on local stages that can only be described as incandescent — a word that also fits her work in “Shakespeare in Love.’’
Allusions to the Shakespearean canon abound in “Shakespeare in Love,’’ up to and including a romantic balcony scene, although said references don’t rise much above a CliffsNotes level and are largely lacking in the intricate hall-of-mirrors dazzle of Stoppard’s classic “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’’
The low point for me was when one SpeakEasy actor snapped “Out, damned Spot!’’ to an admittedly adorable dog. Much funnier is a visual allusion to “A Chorus Line’’ when a slew of actors are auditioning for the role of Romeo. “Shakespeare in Love’’ also makes sly sport of adherents to the Marlovian theory by having Christopher Marlowe, played by Eddie Shields, feed Shakespeare lines during the balcony scene.
That balcony is part of Jenna McFarland Lord’s handsome, two-tiered set, which functions smoothly as the Rose Theatre, Whitehall Palace, Viola’s bedroom, and other settings. Karen Perlow’s artful lighting design is crucial in conveying mood shifts throughout the performance, as is the evocative original music by David Reiffel, who also handled the sound design and music direction.
As for the 18-member cast of “Shakespeare in Love’’ — an unusually large ensemble these days — it features a constellation of reliable local talent, including the ever-able Lewis D. Wheeler as the villain of the piece: Lord Wessex, a hotheaded, jealous nobleman betrothed to an unwilling Viola.
Also on hand are the estimable Remo Airaldi as the aforementioned moneyman/wannabe actor; Ken Baltin as the beleaguered owner of the Rose Theatre; Omar Robinson as the redoubtable and sharp-elbowed actor Richard Burbage; Carolyn Saxon as Viola’s protective nurse; Jesse Hinson as hammy thespian Ned Alleyn; Damon Singletary as the rule-enforcing Lord Chamberlain; and Nancy E. Carroll, at her frozen-faced, dryly sardonic best, as a magisterial Queen Elizabeth.
While Her Majesty says she is “all for the theater,’’ she adamantly insists that “playwrights teach nothing about love,’’ prompting instant disagreement from Viola.
And indeed, thanks to the passions awakened by Viola, at least one playwright will spend the rest of his career proving the Queen wrong.
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall. Directed by Scott Edmiston. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Feb. 10. Tickets from $25, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com