The play's the thing: PCPA celebrates the Bard with 'Shakespeare in Love'

Not everything comes easy to writers. Not at first, anyway. 

This is one of the central ideas tackled by playwright Tom Stoppard and his screenwriting partner Marc Norman in the 1998 movie, Shakespeare in Love. Audiences remember it as the film that won Gwyneth Paltrow a Best Actress Oscar and the very best eight minutes of a Judi Dench performance (which also nabbed her an Academy Award).

click to enlarge The play's the thing: PCPA celebrates the Bard with 'Shakespeare in Love'
TRIPPING THE BOARDS WITH THE BARD: In the Pacific Conservatory Theatre’s latest production, Yusef Seevers plays William Shakespeare, who is seized by a bout of crippling writer’s block. His love for a young woman helps him pen one of the greatest plays of all time.

Then, in 2014, Stoppard and Norman’s work received a new life, thanks to playwright Lee Hall, who transformed the popular movie into a play, which ran in London’s West End. Now the play has landed at the Pacific Conservatory Theatre (PCPA) in a production that runs through March 3.

The play features William “Will” Shakespeare (Yusef Seevers) desperately struggling to finish his latest play, something called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter (which is thoroughly impossible not to laugh at). Will is described as having potential, a classic example of some of the almost Vaudevillian jokes and puns that pop up throughout the play. Also struggling with her life is Viola de Lesseps (Emily Trask), as she faces an arranged marriage while secretly longing to be a star on the stage. But alas we are centuries from wokeness, and women aren’t allowed to act (boo, Elizabethan sexism). 

I refuse to ruin the many ins and outs of how these two get together or what happens to them at the end (it’s sad, OK?). But it involves the arrival of Sir Thomas Kent (Trask), who Shakespeare is intrigued by as an actor, which eventually leads him to fall desperately in love with Viola. She becomes his muse and inspires him to write what is arguably his most famous work, Romeo and Juliet.  

click to enlarge The play's the thing: PCPA celebrates the Bard with 'Shakespeare in Love'
SHALL I COMPARE THEE: Emily Trask, here as Thomas Kent, performs a solid job as an adventurous woman bound by societal rules who dreams of a life on stage. Her performance is a standout in the Pacific Conservatory Theatre’s (PCPA) Shakespeare in Love, which runs through March 3.

Additional characters include Kit Marlowe (George Walker), Henslowe (Peter S. Hadres) Queen Elizabeth (Polly Firestone Walker), Fennyman (Don Stewart), Wessex (Andrew Philpot), and Sir Robert de Lesseps (Brad Carroll). It’s a strong, eclectic cast, who serve to buttress the more cutesy romantic elements of the play. Strong performances from Walker and Firestone Walker, who radiates regal austerity and a tongue-in-cheek kind of severity, should be watched closely.

What also shouldn’t be ignored is what a technical masterpiece this production is. From the very start, the production has focused on creating precise, gorgeous costumes that adhere to the period while reflecting a modern relatability. The set pieces are also impressive and harken to the feel of the original Globe Theatre in a way that isn’t too overbearing and obvious.

Seevers and Trask have excellent chemistry and expertly balance their timing together. Trask does especially well navigating not just the physical aspects of jumping from playing a man to a woman but in highlighting the aching emotional depth of her character. Stoppard’s original work aimed to speak to the absurdities of sexism in archaic cultures while reminding us of their latent presence today. Trask seems to grasp larger aspects of the role she is playing, performed for a contemporary audience, and her thoughtfulness is appreciated. 

The play's the thing: PCPA celebrates the Bard with 'Shakespeare in Love'
SHAKE IT DOWN TO SHAKESPEARE: 'Shakespeare in Love' runs at the Pacific Conservatory Theatre’s Marian Theatre through March 3. The theatre is located at 800 S. College Drive, Santa Maria. For more information, visit

In an obvious way, the material seems absolutely pitch perfect for PCPA. Its reputation for producing quality Shakespeare productions is unrivaled in our region, and I think this selection also allows it to have a bit of a meta moment. These are professional actors who have spent years of their lives studying Shakespeare’s works on all levels in a very serious manner, but you know deep down inside they’re all desperate to make an “out, damned Spot” joke or two. Let’s face it, a lot of Shakespeare’s work can sometimes feel a bit silly and overstuffed if you take it too seriously, and this play is a wonderful opportunity to let off some steam and laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is super meta. Contact her at [email protected].

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