Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Shakespeare in Love
Fountain Hills Theater
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent review of Anything Goes

Spenser Borschel and Shelby Daeffler
Photo by Patty Torrilhon
William Shakespeare's plays often explore the complexities and foibles of love; in Shakespeare in Love, which was adapted for the stage by Lee Hall from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's Oscar-winning screenplay, love becomes the driving force behind one of the world's greatest playwrights. Hall's adaptation is a fresh and fun theatrical take on the film. Fountain Hills Theater's production is well cast, well directed, and a valentine for theatre lovers, Shakespeare fans, and romantics of all ages.

The play centers on the young and struggling William Shakespeare who is suffering from writer's block. His search for inspiration arrives in the form of the passionate theatre enthusiast Viola De Lesseps who becomes the source of Shakespeare's creative reawakening. The two fall deeply in love, but their forbidden romance is complicated by Viola's engagement to Lord Wessex. The fast-moving plot is rich with twists and turns, which makes it an engaging romantic comedy.

While the plot of the play follows the 1998 film screenplay quite closely, Hall has eliminated some of the film's unnecessary minor characters and their plot twists while also leaning into the theatricality of the play within a play concept, which adds a fun theatrical flair to the comedy. As you'd expect from a play that centers on Shakespeare, Hall's dialogue is poetic and, like the screenplay, is an homage to the playwright, with elements from his other plays woven into the dialogue.

Richard Powers Hardt does a wonderful job with the direction. His large cast embody their characters with passion, humor, and authenticity and his staging makes great use of Fountain Hill's intimate main stage venue and Peter J. Hill's simple but effective set design to ensure the many locations in the plot are clear and distinct. Hill's lighting works very well to depict the evening scenes, with cool blue touches and bright and warm colors for the moments that take place during the day. Mickey Courtney's costumes are gorgeous, with rich period touches, and the sound design by Powers Hardt and Ross Collins provides an ever-changing selection of contemporary pop tunes with Elizabethan arrangements that tie in nicely to the humorous nature of the play.

With a lovely balance between wit and vulnerability, Spenser Borschel shines as William Shakespeare. His portrayal perfectly captures the struggling artist grappling with his own limitations who is dumbstruck with love, as well as rediscovering his ability to write, once he meets Viola. Shelby Daeffler is superb as Viola. Her passionate performance radiates charm while also embodying the spirit of a young woman who defies societal norms in pursuit of her dreams. Borschel and Daeffler are a couple in real life and their on-stage chemistry is electric and palpable.

Projecting a heavy dose of pompous flair, River Holmes does a great job as the haughty, entitled aristocrat Lord Wessex, Viola's wealthy fiancé. Andrew O'Neil infuses a sense of playfulness in his portrayal of Marlowe, Shakespeare's foil and friend, and Bob Feugate is wonderful as the eccentric yet lovable theater owner Philip Henslowe. Lauren Miller is excellent, with a commanding stage presence, as the witty and direct Queen Elizabeth I who has a keen interest in the theatre.

In supporting roles, Adam Gobeski is fun as Ned Alleyn, a popular stage actor with a flamboyant personality, Stephani James is great as Viola's nurse, and Al Benneian, Jeff Davey, Peter Hill, and Richard Wells create vivid portrayals of a wide range of comical characters. Also, Elias Matthews shines as Sam, the theatre troupe's young member who plays Juliet in Shakespeare's latest play. The rest of the ensemble infuse energy, warmth, and comedy into the various roles they play. However, the accents aren't always consistent, or present, from some of the supporting members of the cast, which slightly detracts from the joy of the production.

Shakespeare in Love weaves together romance, artistic inspiration, and the transformative nature of art into a touching tale that is a love letter to both William Shakespeare and the joy of live theatre. Fountain Hills Theater's production has an excellent cast, crisp direction, and rich creative elements that capture the beauty of Shakespeare's prose and the magic of theatre.

Shakespeare in Love runs through November 19, 2023, at Fountain Hills Theater, 11445 N. Saguaro Boulevard, Fountain Hills AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 480-837-9661.

Director: Richard Powers Hardt
Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Melissa Kress
Production Manager: Patty Torrilhon
Costume Design: Mickey Courtney
Set & Lighting Design: Peter J. Hill
Sound Design: Richard Powers Hardt and Ross Collins
Hair & Makeup Design: Noel Irick & Marybeth Ingram
Properties: Bob & Alisa Feugate
Dance Choreographer: Noel Irick
Fight Choreographer: Aaron Blanco
Intimacy Choreographer: Leslie Tutnick
Dramaturgy: Jessica Fishell
Dialect Coach: Brandon Gray
Light & Soundboard Operator: Ariel Anderson

Kate/Waiter/Lady in Waiting: Isabelle Bandt
Lambert/Nol/Actor Doug Behm
Fennyman Al Benneian
Will Shakespeare: Spenser Borschel
Viola de Lesseps: Shelby Daeffler
Burbage: Jeff Davey
Boatman/Adam/heavy/Actor: Dheeraj Dixit
Henslowe: Bob Feugate
Ned Alleyn: Adam Gobeski
Wabash: Peter Hill
Frees/Robin/heavy/Valentine: R. Curtis Hills
Wessex: River Holmes
Nurse: Stephani James
Ralph/Catling: Henry Male
Sam: Elias Matthews
Queen Elizabeth: Lauren Miller
Kit Marlowe: Andrew O’Neil
Ms Quickly/Molly/Barman/actor: Kalei Romano
Webster: Gwen Selfridge
Tilney/Sir Robert de Lesseps: Richard Wells