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Hilarity wrapped in heartfelt tenderness, affection

The words wouldn’t come, and the audience loved it. There was young Will Shakespeare bent over his desk, tortured quill in hand. “Shall I compare thee to ... uh ... to uh ... to a ... something.”

With the empathetic laughter that followed, Oregon Shakespeare Festival launched the exuberant U.S. premiere of the stage version of the 1998 film “Shakespeare in Love” in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, a fanciful imagining of William Shakespeare’s early days as a playwright in the waning years of the 16th century.

It’s a bad time for a hefty case of writer’s block. Shakespeare owes plays to two competing London theater owners. They’re demanding completed comedies replete with romance, adventure — maybe a funny bit with a dog. All Will’s got is a title, “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.”

Viola de Lesseps, a young maiden of money and status soon to be married off to the thoroughly unpleasant Lord Wessex, has been stirred to her soul by Shakespeare’s earlier works. Disguised as a man (the law forbids females to perform on stage), Viola auditions for a part in his yet unwritten play. The Rose Theater has found its Romeo. William Shakespeare finds not only his muse but his inspiration for Juliet, and a love that will shape his work and break his heart.

Two intertwined tales of star-crossed lovers play out on balconies and in curtained bedchambers. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay and Lee Hall’s stage adaptation offer inspired speculation on the genesis of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Under Director Christopher Liam Moore’s heartfelt guidance, OSF’s “Shakespeare in Love” becomes a fond, funny exploration of the humbling and ennobling lives of actors and playwrights, and the influence of love on creativity.

When Will comes to Viola’s bedchamber, his freshly written scenes compel her as much as his body. As the translucent curtains are drawn on their first night together, projected words slowly form on the backdrop behind them, the calligraphic lines unfurling like blossoming flowers.

The tenderness with which OSF’s director, designers, cast and small ensemble of musicians support Will and Viola through their romance and inevitable parting reflects a genuine affection for their profession and its patriarch. As hilarious as the production is, with its inside jokes and bawdy, double-edged references, it also comes wrapped in love and care and subtle attention to detail.

The cast is outstanding. William DeMeritt and Jamie Ann Romero as Will and Viola are strong, well matched and eminently watchable. DeMeritt’s light touch and easy confidence carry him fluidly from comedy to heartache. The audience is with ­­­his young Shakespeare from his initial struggling sonnet to the closing scene’s first pen strokes of a Viola-inspired “Twelfth Night.”

Romero imbues Viola with passion fierce enough to risk being female on an Elizabethan stage. Dressed as a man, she appears both smaller and larger, vulnerable on the vast stage yet seeming to stretch taller, willing herself both masculine and worthy of the words she recites. In turn, the actress brings a feminine softness to a young maiden’s first experience of love.

Queen Elizabeth’s appearances are brief, but she dominates the stage as she dominated the world. Kate Mulligan’s imperious Queen is stingingly acerbic, but Mulligan lets us see the price Elizabeth has paid for her power. The Queen ultimately shows Viola a measure of mercy. Elizabeth knows all too well what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.

Queen Elizabeth’s gowns are showstoppers, sumptuous feats of structural engineering by costume designer Susan Tsu and her team, who crafted 60 amazing costumes for this show. In broadly hooped skirts and towering collars, the Queen parts the crowd like a majestic ocean liner. The wealth — and the weight — of a nation glides by in those stately gowns.

With so many strong supporting actors, it’s difficult to find space to pay tribute. Special mention to James Ryen and Kevin Kenerly as ego-puffed actors; Brent Hinkley and Tony DeBruno as a nagging theater owner and a wealthy backer bitten by the showbiz bug; Will Dao as the young man slated to play Juliet until a sudden change of voice renders him uproariously unsuitable; and K.T. Vogt as Viola’s feisty nurse. Young Preston Mead deserves particular praise for his rat-like street urchin with a penchant for gore.

Rival playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, performed with verve and wry wit by Ted Deasy, plays a larger role in Will’s artistic life than in the film version. Marlowe becomes a mentor and, ultimately, as much of a muse as Viola. It’s not only love but kinship with players and playwrights both renowned and obscure that gives Shakespeare his creative spark.

“Shakespeare in Love” runs through Oct. 29.

—  Katherine Hannon is a freelance writer living in Medford. She can be reached at katehannon17@yahoo.com.

Disguised as a male actor, Viola (Jamie Ann Romero) sneaks a moment of tenderness with Will (William DeMeritt) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 'Shakespeare in Love.' [OSF photo by Jenny Graham]