Many of us hear “Shakespeare in Love” and automatically think of the 1998 movie with Joseph Fiennes playing a young Bard, and Gwenyth Paltrow as Viola de Lesseps, an aspiring actor forbidden to take her place on stage. As its title promises, Shakespeare falls in love with Viola and sets into motion an Elizabethan-era romantic comedy. Making matters worse, the famed playwright is dealing with a bad case of writer’s block while working on a new play, “Romeo and Ethel,” as his own tragic love story unfolds.
The Oscar-winning film was directed by John Madden and written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, and then adapted for the stage in 2014 by Lee Hall with music by Paddy Cunneen. Now, Opera House Theatre Company will premiere “Shakespeare in Love” to Wilmingtonians on Thalian Hall’s mainstage on August 29. Under the direction of Mike O’Neil, it stars Paul Teal as Will Shakespeare and Alissa Fetherolf as Viola de Lesseps.
Fetherolf never saw the famed movie until recently. She made a point not to watch Paltrow’s Viola until after she had a chance to establish the character herself. “I hope audiences who see the show will be present with our performances and not compare it to the film,” she notes.
Photos by Belinda Keller Photography
Though there is a little bit of pressure to live up to the movie, Fetherolf’s goal is to have fun and remain in the moment on the live stage. The shared tale of two star-crossed lovers is set in 1560, but Viola’s story arc goes beyond the couple’s love we see unfold. She loves theatre but faces prejudice of women not allowed to act. Shakespeare is well-known for his play’s female roles being played by men. And so Viola doubles down, and disguises herself as Thomas Kent to audition for Shakespeare’s much-anticipated new comedy. She nails it. The play transcends its time, and is easily as relevant to the 21st century as it is to 16th century. It unpacks a woman’s urge and drive to rise above setbacks.
“This story is driven by a woman crossing the line society has drawn,” Fetherolf further explains. “She pushes past boundaries of what is acceptable for her gender in order to pursue her dream. She wants validation that the heart she feels pulsing in her chest, the heart with which she feels passion and desire and ambition, is just as real and as valued as any man’s.”
Adding to Viola’s obstacles is the fact she comes from a wealthy family during a time in which the world prizes sons. Her role in life is little more than a transaction.
“She sees the inequality in the world and craves to have a seat at the table,” Fetherolf says. “Viola is instinctual; she follows her gut. It’s her instincts that lead her to the playhouse.”
By the end of the play, Fetherolf takes on Viola as someone who understands the world around her a little more earnestly. It culminates in her final decision at the end of the play.
Complete with sword fights and dynamic action scenes coordinated by Jordan Wolfe, dance choreography by Mirla Criste and music direction by Bradford Olson, “Shakespeare in Love” includes cast members Ashley Strand, Lee Lowrimore, Randy Davis, Robin Dale Robertson, Holli Saperstein, Tony Rivenbark, and even Domino the Dog. Zeb Mims plays Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, a friendly albeit cocky man who has more presence in this stage adaptation than the screen version.
“He always knows exactly what to do or say and has a flair for the dramatic,” Mims describes. “Digging into his confidence has led me to a place where Marlowe is very physically open. When talking about his art, he can’t help but throw his arms up and let it explode outward. He’s affectionate and boisterous, yet suave and intelligent.”
With many lines and plot devices based on Shakespeare’s work, several characters, like Marlowe, represent historical figures and theories. There’s a scene in which he helps Shakespeare come up with the plot for “Romeo and Juliet,” and it fuels the rumor that Marlowe wrote many plays attributed to Shakespeare.
“The stage script takes this concept up to 11,” Mims reveals. “Not only does Marlowe help Will come up with some of his most famous work, he also becomes a slightly wiser best friend. I like to think of the play’s Marlowe as the Mercutio to Will’s Romeo.”
Shakespeare in Love
August 29-September 8
Thu.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.