Re-Imagining Bard’s Origin Story with ‘Shakespeare in Love’ at CRT

Actors in Elizabethan garb on stage in a production of Shakespeare in Love.
Jack Dillon (Will) and the company of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE onstage at Connecticut Repertory Theatre November 21 through December 8. (courtesy of CRT)

Stories that re-imagine the origins of heroes and icons typically are filled with dramatic moments when characters take actions that ultimately define their renowned stature.

So it was surprising when “Shakespeare in Love,” a romantic comedy-drama about young William Shakespeare struggling with writer’s block while facing a deadline for his next play, swept the major Best Picture awards for 1998 films.

The film that won seven Oscars was adapted to the stage in 2014 and will be presented by the Connecticut Repertory Theatre at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre from Nov. 21-23 and Dec. 4-8.

“I view this play as an homage to Shakespeare,” says Vince Tycer, associate artistic director of CRT, who is directing the production. “It’s kind of like a love letter to Shakespeare. It’s a re-imagining of what could have been his life at the early stages of his career. It brings in elements of gorgeous verse and poetry.”

Tycer, who has performed and directed Shakespeare productions in the UK, Europe, and the U.S., says the stage version of “Shakespeare in Love” has resonated with audiences from its inception not because it is based on the film, but because of the screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, who teamed for the play with Lee Hall, writer-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“The play is written so beautifully, has fantastic characters in it and you’ve got some brilliant Shakespearean verse in there; then you have a gorgeous score,” he says. “When you put all that together you have imaginative actors and designers in the process. That’s how a play gets legs, because you’ve also had plays based on films that have fallen flat.”

He notes the strength of how the characters are written allows many of them to be part of the ensemble until the plot brings them into the spotlight for memorable moments, much in the way Shakespeare did in his plays.

“It goes to the quality of the writers bringing those elements forward. It also goes to the fact they understood Shakespeare,” Tycer notes. “They knew Shakespeare’s ability to do exactly the same thing, where you have a character who hasn’t been in the whole play who comes out and has an absolutely gorgeous soliloquy.”

And while in most instances a play is adapted for film, reversing the process for a story based on Shakespeare is appropriate, given the Bard of Avon’s own writing, says Gregory Semenza, professor of English, who specializes in adaptation and Renaissance drama.

“He was an adapter, first and foremost,” Semenza says. “In no way does that fact lessen the achievement of one of the greatest writers and artists of all time. It’s the skill with which he’s able to reinvent these texts, the beauty of the language that he brings to these texts that makes him distinctive, not his living up to some Romantic notion of poetic inspiration or originality. What I find most wonderfully paradoxical about the film and now this production, and the script more generally, is that it’s an adaptation that effaces the process of adaptation. That is, although Romeo and Juliet really is an Italian novella that Shakespeare adapted, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ presents its origins in Shakespeare’s own personal life and emotions.”

Semenza notes that for the past two decades there has been high interest in origin stories, particularly focused on comic book superheroes.

“We seem at the moment to be really obsessed and interested in origin stories of various sorts, from Willy Wonka to James Bond to Batman,” he says. “The urge is to reinvent a backstory for characters whose original stories in some cases are well-drawn but that nonetheless invite rethinking, or in other cases like that of The Joker, for instance, are just not drawn very clearly. We love these origin stories and Shakespeare in Love plays right into this obsession of the late 1990s and 21st century. How did Shakespeare become the greatest playwright of all time?”

Anthony Cochrane, who plays Henslowe, is an actor/composer from the north of Scotland. He has appeared on Broadway in “The Audience” with Helen Mirren, “War Horse,” “The Coast of Utopia” by Tom Stoppard, and “Cymbeline” at Lincoln Center Theater. Off Broadway he has performed in a variety of Shakespeare productions including “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Julius Caesar,” “King Lear” and “Twelfth Night.” His regional performances include Yale Rep, Old Globe, Folger Shakespeare Theatre, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, and Syracuse Stage.

Guiesseppe Jones, a graduate of A.C.T., joins the cast as Tilney/Sir Robert De Lesseps. His regional theater roles include Henry in “Race” at C.A.T.F, Sam in “Master Harold and the Boys” at The Weston Playhouse, Serge in “ART” at The Clarence Brown Theater, and Othello in “Othello” at N.C.S.F. His New York performances include “Public Enemy” at The Pearl Theater Company, “Widows” at 59East59th St., “Bullrusher” at Urban Stages, and The Basement for The Drama League’s Directorfest. Television credits include “The Black List,” “Blue Bloods,” “House of Cards,” “Person of Interest,” “Fringe,” and “Rescue Me.”

The creative team includes: Chris Coffey (Music Director), Morgan Shea (Scenic Design), Samuel Biondolillo (Lighting Design), & Greg Webster (Fight Choreographer) & Felicia Cooper (Puppet Designer); Brittny Mahan (Costume Design), Pat McCorkle, McCorkle Casting, (Casting Director) Marie Percy (Intimacy Director), Katie Salerno (Sound Design), Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer (Voice/Text/Dialect Coach), Greg Webster (Fight Choreographer), and Nicole Weigert (Stage Manager).

The cast members are: Erin Cessna (Viola), Matthew Antoci (Fennyman), Neil Callahan (Lambert & Ensemble), Jack Dillon (Will), Thalia Eddyblouin (M. Quickly/Kate & Ensemble), Anthony Giovino (Burbage), Angela Hunt (Queen), Justin Jager (Wessex), Jim Jiang (Peter & Ensemble), Colin Kinnick (Sam), Alex Kosciusek (Robin & Ensemble), Nick Luberto (Ralph & Ensemble), Angus MacLennan (Ned), Mauricio Miranda (Marlowe), Bryan Mittelstadt (Boatman/Countertenor/Asst. Music Director), Hunter Monroe (Nol/Frees/Catling & Ensemble), Sean Redahan (Adam & Ensemble), Leone Rodriguez (Webster), Adrianna Simmons (Nurse/Molly), and Cole Wood (Wabash).

Evening performances start at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. NOTE: Opening night curtain on Nov. 22 is at 8:30 p.m. Select matinee performances start at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The Dec. 7 performance at 2 p.m. will be ASL interpreted.

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