Oscar-Winning “Shakespeare in Love” Moves to Austin Playhouse Stage

by Julie Tereshchuk on April 5, 2018 in Living Texas, Austin, Theatre,
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Forget the Shakespeare you knew in high school. “Shakespeare in Love” is date night material!

A brand new adaptation of the beloved, Oscar-winning film, Shakespeare in Love, comes to life onstage in one of Austin Playhouse’s biggest productions to date, set for a five-week run through April 22. With sword fighting, dancing, music, a huge cast, and one adorable dog, the romantic comedy has the makings of a great night out for dates, friends and family.

Jason Newman and Stephen Mercantel in a scene from Austin Playhouse’s “Shakespeare in Love” directed by Don Toner. Photo Christopher Loveless

Director Don Toner and actress Claire Grasso, who plays Viola, one of young Will Shakespeare’s greatest admirers, took us behind the scenes of a production that raucously combines mistaken identity, ruthless scheming and backstage theatrics.

What drew you to Shakespeare in Love?

Don Toner: The film, written by playwright Tom Stoppard, is one of my all-time favorites. When I found out there was a stage adaptation I was immediately interested. And the adaptation is brilliant. It’s one of the most produced plays in the country this year. It’s very unusual to have a movie turned into a stage play, but this particular story works so well in both formats. The stage adaptation is true to the spirit of the film, while enhancing the theatricality. It is a wonderful story of life and love in the theatre.

What, if any, challenges are there when putting on a play after the work is already a successful movie? 

DT: I think the fame of the film encourages audiences to see the stage version. That name recognition is useful, but the language of film is very different from the language of the stage, even when the same story is being told. Having an outstanding company of professional actors is essential to tackling this play. As far as challenges, this play and the movie freely blend historical figures like Shakespeare and Marlowe and Queen Elizabeth with characters created just for the story. But they all have to work together so that this completely fictional piece still feels true to what we know of history.

Stephen Mercantel (Will Shakespeare) and Claire Grasso (Viola). Photo Jess Hughes

What one thing do you want the audience to take away with them?

DT: We want audiences to have a wonderful evening meeting some amazing characters and getting swept away with this love story. We’re very proud that this production showcases so many strengths of our company, from acting to design to wonderfully choreographed fights and dances. It’s really a complete theatrical treat with something for everyone.

Claire, what is it in the storyline and your character that you think Austin’s youthful 21st century audience will identify with?

Claire Grasso: I think they’ll really identify with the heart of the story – which is two young people, full of passion and creative potential, struggling against the internal and external forces that would keep them from realizing their greatest dreams. Viola in particular embodies that person who finds themselves beset by insurmountable obstacles but who perseveres anyway. She knows she may not get everything she wants, but even a glimpse of her dream is worth fighting for. I also think Viola just loves rattling cages to spite the power. And what young person isn’t into that?

What challenges have you found in the role?

CG: It has been very challenging to find the joy. Viola gets everything she wants for a moment but it is so fleeting, and she’s very clear-eyed about that from beginning to end. I’m a person who tends to live in the future, but Viola lives right in the present moment. I just made “not thinking about the consequences” her possibly unhealthy coping mechanism. We all have those. It’s important to not let myself get so lost in the constraints of her current situation and the misery of her future that I can’t be carried away by this incredible, empowering adventure she is going on. I try to think of Viola’s life as a whole. The story of this play is the happiest moment of her life. So no matter what does or doesn’t happen, I have to let it be that.

Shakespeare in Love is at Austin Playhouse at ACC’s Highland Campus Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. Tickets: $20 – $44

Cover photo courtesy Austin Playhouse