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TOY's 'Shakespeare Stealer,' so much fun it's criminal

Consider "The Shakespeare Stealer" sort of a "Shakespeare in Love" for the younger set, an action-filled tale set during the life and times of a playwright for the ages. Like Tom Stoppard's story, this tale is set in and around the original Globe Theater and features the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's theatrical troupe. This time, instead of following Shakespeare's struggles with writer's block, the story features a young orphan named Widge.

Widge (Jordan Louis Fischer) has a touch of the Oliver Twist about him. He is forcefully taken into the service of Simon Bass. This mysterious master has an assignment for Widge: To get him a copy of a brand new play called "Hamlet." Bass is ruthless but no fool. Under his previous master, Widge learned a form of "swift writing" that enables him to take down words as fast as they are spoken. His task is to hide in the theater, pencil in hand, and bring back a copy of the script.

Widge doesn't understand the motive. The only plays he has seen are religious theatricals on Christmas and Easter, and those "are not worth stealing," he remarks.

Bass knows better. "Mr. Shakespeare is a poet of quality – perhaps a genius," he reflects. And he wants to steal from the best.

Bass also knows that his orders may not be enough incentive for the boy, so he adds something else. Accompanying Widge to London will be Bass's dark and dangerous henchman Falconer (Nick Stevens), possessed of a growling voice and swift sword, and completely lacking in both mercy and pity.

The frightening person of Falconer and the playwright's use of some Elizabethan language might put the play out of reach for the youngest children. On the other hand, the talented nine-player ensemble exudes an energy and good-spiritedness that older kids will plunge into whole-heartedly. Theater-loving adults without a child available may even want to see it on their own.

There is something about an ensemble cast playing a theater ensemble.

They joke and parry as skillfully without weapons in hand as they do in the fast-paced sword fights, expertly choreographed by Steve Vaughan. Adolescent angst is portrayed by Jesse Tiebor as Nick, a troubled young actor aging out of his ability to portray the female characters and fearful about being able to act like a man. Renee Landrigan is Julian, who has a secret that is bound to come out before the final bows, while Dan Torres is immensely likable as Sander, an apprentice performer who befriends Widge even when Widge doesn't know what a friend is.

Widge – who has spent his life abandoned and abused – has never met people like this. After he's caught in the theater, he lies that he has run away to be a "player," and rather than toss him out, the grown-ups in the group – played by Shabar Rouse, Jordan Levin and Bobby Cooke as Shakespeare – give him a chance.

Being treated as a human being for the first time in his life, Widge develops a conscience and is torn between loyalty to his newfound theater family and fear of the sharp sword of the evil Falconer.

Director Chris Kelly uses a light hand to maintain the balance between adventure and humor, mixing the daring with the derring-do with moments of fun and silliness.

This largely male cast reflects the no-women-allowed stage rules of the times, and besides Landrigan, there is only one other woman in the cast. Lisa Vitrano has three small roles. One consolation is she ends up as the Queen.

Gary L. Blackwood adapted his historical novel "The Shakespeare Stealer" for the stage The result is a remarkably enjoyable and surreptitiously educational experience of real theater, worthwhile for kids who already love theater and those who haven't had a chance to love it yet.

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Theater review

"The Shakespeare Stealer"

4 stars

A boy in Elizabethan England is tasked by a crooked master with stealing Will Shakespeare's new play "Hamlet," but instead he is taken under the wing of the Globe Theatre actors, who treat him as one of their own. Violent swordplay and sophisticated dialogue make this a show for children about age 9 and up. Present by Theatre of Youth in its Allendale Theater, 203 Allen St., Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 12. For tickets, go to theatreofyouth.org. For information about a special sensory-supportive show on Feb. 11 and value tickets, call 884-4400.

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