Reminiscent of Shakespeare’s first play The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the new Shakespeare-inspired comedy titled Malapert Love by first-time playwright Siah Berlatsky would make the bard proud. Letters and sonnets are written by servants, plagiarized to woo a fleeting infatuation. Identities are swapped, fools are poets and poets are fools, friends become lovers, and the fickle human heart is lampooned in this fast-paced comedy.
Yet it is possible to overdo such elements. Who among us hasn’t seen a play that works too hard, gets too silly, dodges the nuances? This production from Artistic Home, directed by Julian Hester, is not that play. “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well,” Shakespeare himself later wrote in King Lear, and it seems as if Berlatsky understands this, sticking to the hilarious elements of farce, mistaken identities, breakups, and reconciliations, as well as the satisfying sigh of happy endings.
Malapert Love Through 12/11: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; no performance Thu 11/24; Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, 773-697-3830, theartistichome.org, $35 (students/seniors $15)
Yet if that were all it took, we’d all be staying home on a Thursday night to see season three of Love Is Blind. Berlatsky gets those nuances and uses the play’s framing and snarky dialogue to dig more deeply into a few familiar themes of the human heart: friendship (is it always platonic?); love (is it really that or more like lust?); and honor (are we maybe putting a lot of pressure on ourselves?)
Better yet, Malapert Love is full of deeply satisfying and gasp-inducing romantic moments between queer (and cisgender) characters to offset the scheming and the duels. The play has a particular appeal to the LGBTQ+ world and as such brings with it a certain cosplay romantic comedy adventure vibe—nodding to a genre where queer storytelling has traditionally found refuge.
Malapert Love is perfectly cast with Karla Corona (serving pure diva as Gabriella), Ernest Henton (successfully channeling every clueless dude ever in love, this one a fool called Molyneux,) and Frank Nall (as Phischbreath, a ne’er-do-well huffer of forbidden inhalants and a true street saint). It also includes Grant Carriker (playing pouty but irresistible Duke Montoya), Declan Collins (playing Skip, the riveting, multitalented love interest/servant of Montoya), Emilie Rose Danno (playing the plucky servant and brainy Esperanza), Jenna Steege Ramey (playing the charming powerhouse Lorca, love interest to Gabriella) and Xela Rosas and Luke Steadman (multiple roles, more below).
Layers of story upon story parallel each other—cascading through class, gender, and sexuality with aplomb, uncloaking not just a Shakespearean ease of wit, but also displaying a Gen Z modern sensibility. Duke Montoya struggles to accept his love for a commoner much more than he struggles with the fact that he has fallen in love with another man. The fourth wall is broken at every turn with brief “Are you getting this shit?” appeals to the audience (à la The Office), and the pompous language is delivered with camp physicality to match it, or else popped in and out of to serve up an irresistible modern punchline. One of the most satisfying stories in the show is that of the servant/bandit/musician/stagehand duo played by Rosas and Steadman. Their story uncomplicatedly and sweetly escalates to love in the background even as the machinations of their ambitious employers are unraveling.
Kevin Hagan’s minimal but cleverly designed set, with sheer screens that allow for effective comic asides, combines with Mike McShane’s colorful lighting to set the rom-com mood.
In a Reader interview back in June about the play, Berlatsky (who is the daughter of Reader contributor Noah Berlatsky) explained, “I would write it on the bus or the train to and from school on my phone. I didn’t really think that anything would ever come of it. I was just a kid experimenting with art.” If this is what Berlatsky can do on a crowded el train, the world has much more to look forward to from this writer.