'Her Majesty's Will' is a heady, silly romp that works

Chicago Tribune

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but holes in the timeline offer catnip to authors of historical fiction. Where facts cannot be found, imagination runs wild.

In "Her Majesty's Will," David Blixt's imagination takes us on a romp through the so-called "Lost Years" of William Shakespeare — that period from roughly 1578 to 1592 in which (other than the record of his marriage to Anne Hathaway and the birth of their children), practically nothing is known of his life. In his 2012 novel, Blixt (who is also a Chicago-based actor and fight director) tosses Will into the world of high-stakes espionage and London lowlifes. For good measure, he also tosses in Christopher Marlowe.

It's a nearly perfect choice for Lifeline Theatre, whose best productions often include wink-and-a-nod approaches to classic storytelling tropes. In Robert Kauzlaric's adaptation, directed by Chris Hainsworth, Blixt's wild ride shows young Will Falstaff (as he's been calling himself) finding his voice as a man and artist, even as he assumes many different guises in order to survive.

Shakespearean in-jokes abound — someone actually does "exit, pursued by a bear," as in the famous stage direction from "A Winter's Tale." Amid the political intrigue, the story also tosses in same-sex attraction, feminist moxie and plenty of inventive stage fights. (Blixt created the latter, and if you've ever wanted to see tankards vs. swords in a pub fight, this is your show.)

And somehow, it all comes together in a mix that manages to be heady and silly in equal measure. There are moments that strain toward profundity, and it takes a little while in the first act for the narrative and the production to find the balance in the tone. But Kauzlaric's well-honed adaptation and Hainsworth's smart and supple direction, along with a high-spirited cast, move the entire affair along with deft precision, almost never letting us get ahead of the twists in the story.

That story begins with Will in Lancashire, working as a put-upon schoolmaster. A chance encounter with a serving woman being manhandled by a pair of rogues sets him off on his road trip to London. The serving woman turns out to be "Kit" Marlowe, who has uncovered secret messages from Mary Queen of Scots to Catholic rebels bent on overthrowing Protestant Elizabeth I.

With the rebels in pursuit, the two men make their way to London, where an unlikely potpourri of Marlowe's fellow carousing men of letters, theater folks and courtiers become ensnared in the plot. There are also a couple of plays-within-the-play that let us see where Shakespeare lifted and refined some of his own stories and devices.

In the tradition of all great buddy escapades, amid the plot twists lies a fine bromance (well, a bit more than that, actually). Javier Ferreira's Will, entranced by the streets and stages of London, moves from an earnest schoolteacher haunted by memories of his loutish father to a man who trusts his own will and heart. Bryan Bosque's charming but maddening Marlowe shows flashes of warmhearted loyalty amid his preening. ("I always win," he declares at one point. "That's what makes being me so satisfying.")

The rest of the cast, who all play multiple roles, deliver fluid and cunning turns running the gamut of London society, from dastardly nobles to put-upon showfolk. Heather Chrisler especially holds her own as the only woman in the cast, playing the chorus/narrator, a pair of very different pub maids and a lady-in-waiting to the queen, who doesn't rely upon her corset to stand proud. (Aly Renee Amidei's costumes provide period detail and eye candy galore.)

Admittedly, the show probably offers a few more treats for people who know their Shakespeare. (An Earl of Oxford joke might sail over the heads of those unacquainted with the "authorship" debate.) But even those unaffected by Bardolatry will find much to enjoy in "Her Majesty's Will." By the end, Blixt's tale provides an uplifting homage to how common people find uncommon reserves of poetry, courage, wit and honor in times of unrest.

Kerry Reid is a freelance critic.

ctc-arts@chicagotribune.com

"Her Majesty's Will" - 3.5 Stars

When: Through July 16

Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $40 at 773-761-4477 or www.lifelinetheatre.com

MORE FROM THE THEATER LOOP:

Stacy Keach had heart attack during 'Pamplona'

Hot looks at the 2017 Non-Equity Jeff Awards

Can 'The King and I' change with the times?

Copyright © 2017, CT Now