For the first time in its 26 years, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is not offering a play by William Shakespeare.
Instead, this season’s presentation, starting this week, will be a play about William Shakespeare: “Shakespeare in Love.”
It’s based on the 1998 Oscar-winning (seven of them) movie in which young Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), beset by a killer case of writer’s block, finds the inspiration for “Romeo and Juliet” in his relationship with Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a theater-struck young noblewoman.
For her part, Viola wants so much to be an actor that she passes herself off as a young man (women were banned from public performances in Elizabethan England) and becomes the first person to portray Juliet.
Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) adapted Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s Oscar-winning screenplay for the stage, and it opened in London’s West End in 2014.
To offer “Shakespeare in Love” in Kansas City, fest artistic director Sidonie Garrett had to ask her board to change the nonprofit’s mission statement.
Until this year the fest had a mandate to produce “only plays written by William Shakespeare.” The new mission, according to the revised statement: “To make the works of Shakespeare and Shakespeare-inspired works accessible to a diverse audience.”
According to Garrett, festival founder Marilyn Strauss, who died in September, was totally on board with the possibilities offered by this simple change in wording.
Of course, with any change comes some blowback.
When the fest announced it would offer “Shakespeare in Love” in lieu of an actual Shakespeare play, traditionalists complained.
Star reader Don Compier fired off a letter to the editor, calling the change a “cruel betrayal” and saying that this “fictionalized dime-store romance novel does nothing to deepen our understanding of the bard’s immortal work.”
But Jan Rogge, who portrays Queen Elizabeth I in this production and is a Shakespeare Festival regular, maintains that the show is anything but a “dumbing down” of the mission.
“This is Tom Stoppard, after all, one of our greatest playwrights,” she said. “I’m only in three scenes so I get to spend most of every rehearsal listening to the other actors work this material. And it really keeps you on your toes. It’s so funny, with so many great insider Shakespeare jokes.”
Clearly, it’s an audience-pleaser. American Theatre magazine reports that “Shakespeare in Love” was the most-produced play in America during the 2017-18 season, soon after it became available for production in this country.
So certain are festival organizers of the play’s potential that they have extended the usual three-week run to four.
Moreover, some of the production’s most moving moments are straight, undiluted Shakespeare. The play re-creates the debut performance of “Romeo and Juliet” in the 1590s.
“If we had the financial wherewithal I’d have done this play in repertory with ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” Garrett said.
“If only I had another $180,000.”
Garrett expects “Shakespeare in Love” to attract new audiences to the festival. The hope is that they’ll be bitten by the Bard bug and return for future mountings of Shakespeare plays.
“What makes this so magical is that we see ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a new play coming together as we watch,” Garrett said. “For festival audiences who have never seen ‘Romeo and Juliet’ before, hearing this language for the first time and watching as the Elizabethan actors and audiences fall in love with the work should be a great experience.”
In the meantime cast members — including other festival regulars Bruce Roach, Matt Rapport, Todd Lanker, Cinnamon Schultz and John Rensenhouse — are negotiating the challenges of the script, which takes them from broad comedy (as Shakespeare’s company struggles with his latest work) to the genuine tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Sid has really broken this thing down for us,” said Keenan Ramos, a festival newbie who will play Peter, the actor who portrays the fiery Tybalt in “R&J.” (“I get to kill Mercutio … always a dream of mine.”)
“She said that when we’re offstage in the play, we just have to think of ourselves as actors preparing for a role. Which is exactly who we are. She said, ‘Bring that to the performance.’”
In addition to acting, Ramos will be playing the violin. “Shakespeare in Love” comes with a complete score — musicians and chorus recorded by sound designer Greg Mackender. That “soundtrack” will be augmented by cast members performing live on violin, guitar and various percussion instruments.
At the heart of this production are Matt Schwader and Hillary Clemens, a married couple who will portray William Shakespeare and Viola De Lesseps.
This isn’t the first time the two have played onstage lovers. They’ve been Romeo and Juliet, Gatsby and Daisy in “The Great Gatsby” and Orlando and Rosalind in “As You Like It.” They also played siblings Laertes and Ophelia in the Shakespeare Festival’s “Hamlet.”
“It’s great playing romantic interests with each other,” Schwader said. “You get to rekindle the thrill of looking at each other for the very first time.”
“Which, when you have a 3-year-old and an 8-month-old, is a gift,” added Clemens.
In rehearsals the two have discovered the subtle differences between their characters’ “offstage” dialogue and the way lines are delivered during the play-within-the-play, “Romeo and Juliet.”
“The crux of the story is about these two finding truth in Shakespeare’s text,” Schwader said. “We often refer to the poetry in Shakespeare as being heightened. Here, when we slip into true Shakespearean dialogue, it really elevates the stakes, raises the thrills. It’s a more potent world.”
Clemens has an even knottier situation: “I’m a woman playing a woman who’s passing as a man who’s playing a woman. At times I feel I’m playing three different characters at once.
“Who knows who I really am in any given moment?”
The couple agree that working on “Shakespeare in Love” is about as much fun as they’ve had rehearsing a play.
“You can come to work and sword fight and dance. Yeah, that’s our job,” Schwader said.
“Sword fight and dance and kiss a bit. It’s a good way to earn a paycheck.”
The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival presents “Shakespeare in Love” June 11-July 7 at Southmoreland Park, 4600 Oak St. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays and July 1; no show July 4. See kcshakes.org or call 816-531-7728. Free; reserved seating available for purchase.