Shakespeare in Love: From the screen to the stage in Chicago, Oregon, Utah, and New Jersey

Shakespeare in Love, the Oscar-winning 1998 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, has become quite the popular stage play at Shakespeare theaters around the United States.

No less than four of the Folger’s theater partners are performing it in 2017: Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Feb 18-Oct 29), Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Apr 15-Jun 18), Utah Shakespeare Festival (Jun 30-Sep 8), and Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (Oct 11-Nov 12).

Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, and adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, Shakespeare in Love gives us the imagined romance of Will Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps, the woman who helps him overcome writer’s block to pen one of his most famous plays, Romeo and Juliet. It’s a comedy, but one with a tragic end, as the lovers are forced to part.

“As the authors imagine his character, Shakespeare is so self-absorbed that, without Viola and their relationship, he would never have left a legacy,” says Rachel Rockwell, who directs the Chicago production. “Will thought he was writing for himself, but Viola shows him that he is writing for the world. It goes beyond ego and becomes instead about creating a work of art that transcends history.”

Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Shakespeare in Love
The company of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film, directed by Rachel Rockwell in CST’s Courtyard Theater, April 15–June 18, 2017. Photo by Liz Lauren.

In Shakespeare and Love, Viola inspires Will to write Romeo and Juliet, and they perform in it together. Utah Shakespeare Festival takes that theatrical parallel to a new level this summer.

Audience members there may notice that the actress playing Viola, Betsy Mugavero, appears onstage a different night (in a different play) as Juliet. In fact, there is significant overlap in the cast for Utah’s production of Shakespeare in Love, which begins June 30, and its production of Romeo and Juliet, which begins July 1. Playing in repertory, the two productions also share scenery and the same open-air venue, the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, which opened last summer.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Shakespeare in Love
Disguised as a male actor, Viola (Jamie Ann Romero) sneaks a moment of tenderness with Will (William DeMeritt) in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in Love, 2017. Photo by Jenny Graham.

At Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the young Will is played by a young Bill (William DeMeritt) with black and Jewish parentage.

“Bill’s casting is a fun comment on all of the mystery surrounding Shakespeare,” says dramaturg Martine Kei Green-Rogers in OSF’s Prologue magazine. “We know so much, yet so little about the historical Shakespeare, and to cast an actor with a mixed-race background in this role nods to that mystery. In addition, I think one of the things that lovers of Shakespeare like to tout is that Shakespeare is universal. To have an actor with a background like Bill’s in this role emphasizes that idea—Shakespeare is for all, and his language has the power to represent all.”

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