ORLANDO — Finding a way to deliver Shakespeare to mainstream audiences has been a intriguing artistic challenge over the years, particularly for filmmakers, who have come up with some unique ways to convince a television audience to get off the couch and head to the movies — to see Shakespeare!
At the height of their popularity in the 1960s, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton performed together in a movie version of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” hoping their hip approach to comedy would help find a new audience for the Bard. In 1971, director Roman Polanski made a version of “Macbeth” that was close to being an outright horror film, with witches, ghosts at the dinner table, bloody gore and severed heads.
But perhaps one of the most successful effort over the years wasn’t an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays, but a tribute to him — and a comedy at that. “Shakespeare in Love” was released in 1998, based on an original screenplay written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard. The hook: mistaken identity.
The movie, which would win seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, depicted an imaginary love affair between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps, a talented aspiring actress who understandably has a big problem: she’s a woman, and ladies are not allowed to perform on stage. So Viola disguises herself as a man, auditions for the role of Romeo in the new comedy that Shakespeare is writing called “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” — yeah, more about that title later — and before you can say “Victor/Victoria” or “Tootsie,” Will is wowed by Viola’s performance and she has the lead.
Of course, she does have to make sure it doesn’t slip out that she’s a woman.
Or does she?
It’s been 20 years since the movie became an artistic and commercial triumph, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Orlando’s top Shakespearean theater eventually would see fit to adopt the movie into a play. “Shakespeare in Love,” which opened on Friday and runs through March 25 in the Margeson Theater at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, is a fitting tribute from a production company that has staged some truly memorable, innovative and stylishly produced versions of Shakespeare’s classics.
Adapted for the stage by playwright Lee Hall, this production benefits enormously from the excellent performances by John P. Keller as Will and Susan Maris as Viola, who have a true gift for comedic timing, which is no small accomplishment in a show like this one. It feels a bit like a British version of a traditional French farce — boosted by witty dialogue and some very strong laugh-out-loud moments as the show pokes fun at gender roles in Shakespeare’s day.
There are few more clever moments than when Viola, posing as Alex as “he” plays Romeo, has a scene where “he” must kiss Juliet — who in this case is played by a man, acting like he just walked off the set of “Will And Grace.” Viola is nervous — what if Juliet can sense from the kiss that he is a she? So Viola kisses Juliet on the nose, then the cheek. That prompts a frustrated playwright Will to temporarily assume the role of Romeo so he can demonstrate what a genuine kiss to Juliet looks like.
And who said Shakespearean theater was all stuffy and highbrow?
“Shakespeare In Love” feels like the ideal way for Orlando Shakes to pay tribute to the man who, after all, provided them with their title and raison d’etre, and the terrific work by Keller and Maris is nicely complimented by a superb cast that includes Anne Hering as Queen Elizabeth and, quite hilariously, Rhyse Silvestro as the young boy with the booming voice who fancies himself a veteran actor of immense talent.
There are certainly plenty of laughs to spare in this one, and some of the show’s best moments follow Will as he decides not to write a comedy focused on pirates, but a tragedy about doomed love. The play opens with a Shakespeare who is struggling with writer’s block, and has a lot of fun speculating about how he might have gotten inspiration based on incidents in his own life.
“Shakespeare In Love” is being performed at the theater at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando’s Loch Haven Park. For tickets and more information, call 407-447-1700. The show runs 2 1/2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the terrifying book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..