Shakespeare's in Love again at Asolo

You've seen the movie, now see the play.

click to enlarge Lara Rook and Jordan Brown in Shakespeare in Love. - John Revisky
John Revisky
Lara Rook and Jordan Brown in Shakespeare in Love.

The 1998 film Shakespeare in Love was an across-the-board smash. Written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, the verbose romantic comedy took the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, as well as top acting honors for Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench.

The world, it would seem, is already intimately familiar with the (fictional) story of William Shakespeare trying to pen Romeo and Juliet despite a case of writers’ block. So what’s to be gained by adapting Shakespeare in Love for the stage?

Rachel Rockwell, who’s directing the Asolo Repertory Theatre production that runs Jan. 12 through March 28, says that when it comes to historical fiction, the play’s the thing.

Oh, she loved the movie, like everybody else. However, Rockwell explains, “because it’s a movie about our medium, and the making of theater, it’s actually better suited for us than it is for them.”

Lee Hall’s adaptation, says the Chicago-based Rockwell, is “very close to the film script. I think people are coming for that great, witty, wonderful banter. And it’s all there, which is great.

“And then we can add a theatrical device on top of it, which makes something that they already love a new something to love. In a different way.”

The story (as if you’ve forgotten): Young Will is working on a new play for the Rose Theatre. Thomas Kent, a local actor, turns out to be a disguised Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of a nobleman and a big fan of Shakespeare’s work.

A romance ensues, with much backstage intrigue, teeth-gnashing and well-placed verbal rejoinders. The lovely Viola becomes Shakespeare’s muse for Romeo and Juliet. Queen Elizabeth gets involved. At the time (16th-century London), women were legally prohibited from performing in theatrical plays.

It’s a love story, a comedy and a tragedy, just what you want from your Shakespearean story arc.

“As crazy as it sounds, I felt like I had a lot in common with Will when I was first reading this, because he’s a starving artist,” says Chicago-based journeyman actor Jordan Brown, who has the title role. “You feel like you’re starting over again with each new job.

“When we meet him, he’s hustling his butt off just to make ends meet. He’s still owed his commission on Two Gentlemen of Verona, and he’s trying to break his way into groups he’s not yet part of. He’s hustling.”

Meeting Viola, and meeting her “cute” (as they say in the movie biz), turns the playwright’s world upside down. “She’s already a fan of his writing,” observes the Viola-playing Laura Rook, who’s also from Chicago. “As opposed to the other playwrights, he’s writing these comedies that have depth to them.

“We make a bunch of jokes in the play about how Two Gents isn’t that great. She thinks it’s frickin’ great. She loves that play — and I, Laura, love that play. You see the stuff that’s underneath it. All of his comedies have a lot tragedy in them. Especially Two Gents, it gets really dark and rape-y and weird.

“So she’s attracted to him as a poet. He speaks poetry. He’s intelligent and he’s on her wavelength.”

Award-winning director Rockwell, who was named the Chicago Tribune’s Chicagoan of the Year in 2012, directed this show previously at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and brought most of her design team to Florida. She’d worked with Brown and Rook, separately, in other shows. The actors, however, first met at the first Asolo read-through for Shakespeare in Love.

Rook believes too much is made, sometimes, about the chemistry between actors.

“I think if you cast good actors, there’s chemistry,” she says. “I have very rarely done like a ‘chemistry read’ with a leading man. It’s not like a magical thing that you can find.

“When you’re auditioning, that’s not the place to do it. I think if you are a vulnerable, open actor, and a good actor, then you will be able to fall in love onstage.”

As she’s rehearsed and fine-tuned her show, Rockwell has seen the chemistry, the magic, the falling in love onstage, happening over and over again.

Last week, she says, Asolo’s Producing Artist Director Michael Edwards was watching a run-through, “and he was crying through most of it.

“You want so much for them to be together. Sure, sexuality is one thing, but this is soul mates. And that’s what it needs to be. Women will go ‘Wow — how come you never talk to me like that?’”