Dallas — Twenty years ago, the movie Shakespeare in Love was about as unlikely a cinematic sensation as one could find. The fanciful take on Elizabethan drama burst out of the art houses and wound up becoming one of the top ten grossing films for the year.
It garnered seven Academy Awards including Best Picture as well as Best Screenplay. That screenplay was co-written by esteemed playwright Tom Stoppard, whose inventive reworkings of the Bard go back to the witty and absurdist Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Now the work has gone back to the theater. In 2014, a play based on the movie and written by Lee Hall, debuted in the Noël Coward Theatre in London's West End. It was first performed in the US at the 2017 Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It is about to arrive in Dallas, courtesy Shakespeare Dallas, which presents the play to run in repertory with As You Like It for the summer festival at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre in Tenison Park.
To briefly summarize the story: a penurious William Shakespeare is a young writer coming off an early success and facing writers block with his newest comedy, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. He finds a muse in Viola, a young woman who poses as a man in order to perform in one of his plays. What ensues is as much a love story as a sentimental study of the artistic process.
For Shakespeare Dallas, the play provides an exciting alternative to the traditional lineup of Shakespeare’s works. It’s a production that offers an examination of the entire creative process, from how the works are created to how they are presented. But it’s also a lot of fun with wordplay and singing. And there’s a dog in there too.
TheaterJones sat down with the director, Shakespeare Dallas’ Executive and Artistic Director Raphael Parry, to discuss all of this as the show prepares for its debut this week. In this production, Montgomery Sutton plays William Shakespeare and Stephanie Oustalet is Viola.
TheaterJones: Why did Shakespeare Dallas decide to do Shakespeare in Love?
Raphael Parry: I have been hearing about this production from my colleagues who are all primarily Shakespeare producers and I had the chance to go see it in a production by the Illinois Shakespeare last summer. One of our actors was performing in it and I went up there to see it and I was really surprised, and I thought the staged adaptation was great. After seeing it there I was convinced I wanted to do it.
It took about a year to get the rights. We’re not normally a company that deals with that so the process of getting them took a little bit more time than I thought. But we did secure them finally.
How much of a change of pace is it for Shakespeare Dallas?
We have been trying to open up the canon and include other plays beyond Shakespeare. In our 40th season, we did a non-Shakespeare play and we did Cyrano De Bergerac. Since then we’ve done [Goldsmith’s] She Stoops To Conquer, [Octavio Solis’ adaptation of] Don Quixote, and [Reduced Shakespeare Company’s] The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).
The intent is to embrace people who may be interested but feel a little intimidated by a Shakespeare title. In my experience people say “I don’t understand it. I remember studying in school and I just don’t get it.” But if they come to the performances they always seem to leave saying “WOW! That was really great! It was completely different than I expected.”
Is this play going to appeal to Shakespeare aficionados as well?
For people who know Shakespeare, it will be really a treat because there are tons of little lines that are embedded in the theatrical version that are sort of riffs on other Shakespeare plays. So, there are these references where you can say “Oh, that’s from Hamlet!” or “Oh, that’s from The Scottish Play.” So, the deeper your understanding of Shakespeare, the more of these little nuggets are there to be found.
And what about fans of the film?
I watched the film about a year ago. I tried to see it and put it away so I wouldn’t unconsciously reference it in the theater version. I remember the arc is very similar. I remember some of the witty dialogue is still there although it’s more condensed for the stage play, it feels like.
The quip and jokes are still there, and the punchlines are too. The character arcs are the same. Will’s character arc, Viola’s character arc still the same. There are some aspects that are heightened for theatricality.
What is the challenge to this production versus putting on a traditional Shakespeare play?
We chose to do this production with recorded tracks. I think there are 52 tracks that are played as song segments or musical numbers. The scoring has to be very precise. The song might support a textual scene and the timing has to be exact when the actors are speaking the lines from Romeo and Juliet. There is singing underneath it.
We have a fantastic music director [Guilherme Feitosa de Almeida] and my associate director, Tom Alsip, is a professor in musical theater, and without both of those two professionals I couldn’t have made it through this production. It’s overwhelming in terms of the amount of musical score that is underscoring the whole play. And it’s recorded so the timing has to be spot on and perfect to complete the scene.
Is the musical element a significant change for you?
It’s got a lot more singing in it than a normal play we would do. I think in my tenure here we have done one full on musical which was an adaptation of Midsummers Night Dream. I wouldn’t call this a musical, it’s more of a play with music. But there is a lot of music.
The screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard and Mark Norman but the play was adapted written by Lee Hall. Even though that’s an extended process, does the fact Stoppard had such a strong background as a playwright help this play?
I’m a big fan of Tom Stoppard. I think he’s a super smart writer. And I think the bones of this are really Tom Stoppard. The play is clearly theatrical with part one and part two. And the timing of each is almost exact and that seems like the hand of the playwright [Lee Hall] trying to make sure it’s really balanced. And there is a sense that the composer was seeking to create an Elizabethan atmosphere with madrigals and four-part harmonies. Those elements add a significance to it.
How familiar do you have to be with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to understand this play?
I wouldn’t say there is a lot of Romeo and Juliet embedded in this play, maybe 15 percent of the lines are from the original play. I think that the stage play is very accessible even if you know nothing about it and haven’t seen the movie. It is still a great story. It’s a great love story which doesn’t try to knit up in a perfect manner. I think it is pretty accessible for anybody.
So, you are doing a play which is about the creation of a play which you have also done before. Was that a little strange?
There is a separation with the language that is very interesting. When they are doing the text outside of Shakespeare’s language it is kind of a simplistic dialogue. Although it’s fast repartee. Then, of course, when they step into Shakespeare’s text the language becomes elevated immediately. It’s iambic pentameter and it has a different form.
Was that a challenge?
I think the biggest challenge with that is trying to help the actors make that clear definition. You want it to sound spontaneous and original, especially when Will is quoting himself or making something up. I think the great thing for Montgomery [Sutton] is he has played Romeo before. Although it’s been 13 years, so his Romeo now is a lot deeper and Montgomery’s language skills are so much richer. That actor has a lot deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s words and can bring more weight to playing it just with that facility.
How is this a gateway to more traditional productions of Shakespeare?
I hope one thing is they learn we work outdoors. They can bring a picnic basket. They are sitting outside. There is that experience and they can see a pretty enjoyable production so they might want to take a chance on one of Shakespeare’s plays.
» Shakespeare in Love opens Friday, June 14 and is also performed June 15 and 16; As You Like It previews June 19 and 20, and opens June 21 and repeats June 22. Beginning Sunday, June 23, the summer schedule is Shakespeare in Love on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays through July 21; As You Like It is performed on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, through July 19. Junior Players presents Much Ado About Nothing from July 30 through Aug. 4. Curtain is at 8:15 for every performance.