It’s been 20 years since the film Shakespeare in Love had audiences swooning. The romantic comedy celebrates theater, love and poetry amid impossible romance, Queen Elizabeth’s court and mistaken identities, and it took home a cartload of awards, including the 1999 Academy Award for Best Picture. The screenplay, written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, was adapted for the stage by playwright Lee Hall in 2014.
Montford Park Players selected the popular production to kick off its 2019 season: Shakespeare in Love, directed by Julie Richardson, runs through Saturday, May 25, at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater.
John Russell, managing director of Montford Park Players, had his sights on the play for some time. “If audiences enjoyed [it] on screen, they can expect to enjoy the stage version,” he says. One requirement in producing the play is staying true to the playwright’s vision, so audiences can anticipate a straightforward interpretation. In relation to the film, Russell says, “It’s the same basic story with a few added scenes.”
For those unfamiliar, the story centers on poor, young Will Shakespeare, who is in debt, uninspired and suffering from writer’s block. He’s also overshadowed by the successful playwright Christopher Marlowe. But when Will meets Viola De Lesseps, daughter of a wealthy merchant, he’s found his muse.
Viola’s secret passion is to act, but it’s illegal for women to appear onstage. She disguises herself as a man to perform in Will’s play because she believes his work is superior to Marlowe’s. Will and Viola begin to fall in love, setting fire to Will’s quill as he crafts his masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet, (although his working title is Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter). All this takes place against a ticking clock of Viola’s impending and arranged marriage to Lord Wessex.
The Montford Park Players have performed Shakespeare’s plays since 1973. In recent years, the group has incorporated other classically inspired works into its lineup, including original work and plays for young audiences.
Much thought and collaboration go into the selections, from appealing to a wide audience to covering Shakespeare’s blockbusters as well as lesser-known works. (The local theater group prides itself on being the 14th company in the world to complete all of Shakespeare’s plays.) There’s also the consideration of the amphitheater space. “It’s a huge stage with multiple levels, much bigger than any indoor theater,” says Russell. “It definitely dictates our decisions.”
Two original works by local playwrights are featured this season. Robin Hood: Quest for Justice (June 28-July 27), by Jeff Messer and Robert Akers, is the sequel to their original play — and last season’s hit — Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood. Young and mature audiences alike can expect a swashbuckling, action-packed adventure. And those who missed Robin Hood last year will have no problem jumping into this year’s sequel.
The other original offering is 16 Years Tried (Sept. 20-Oct. 5) by Travis Lowe. The play was a semifinalist in the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries Competition last year at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va. The story covers the decade and a half skipped over in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. That classic play precedes (Aug. 30-Sept. 14) 16 Years Tried on the Montford Park Players’ season lineup because “the idea is that you could insert it right into the middle of A Winter’s Tale,” Russell explains.
Audience members who attend the entire season will experience the connective tissue between A Winter’s Tale and 16 Years Tried, as well as Shakespeare in Love and its predecessor, Romeo and Juliet (Aug. 2-24).
The season also includes Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I (May 31-June 22), about the strained relationship between the titular king and his son while a rebellion gathers steam. The 2019 roster concludes with the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol (location and dates to be announced). The local company has performed the holiday-themed play every year since 1977 at various locations around Asheville, as the open-air Hazel Robinson Amphitheater is closed during winter months.
But the warm-weather nights of free theater under the stars are only growing in renown. The Montford Park Players increased their audience by 93% last year, a staggering growth that Russell credits in large part to expanding the lineup and marketing to include youths. “Two years ago, we produced Peter Pan, our first attempt at theater for a younger audience, and our numbers grew immediately,” he says. It’s a win for everyone: “We also find that parents of these children are enjoying themselves and returning to see the more adult-themed shows.”
WHAT: Montford Park Players presents Shakespeare in Love
WHERE: Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre, 92 Gay St., montfordparkplayers.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, May 25. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Free. Chair rentals available for $2