‘Love’ Struck

Chicago Shake­speare Theater brings ‘Shake­speare in Love’ to Navy Pier, giv­ing au­di­ences a ro­mance for the ages

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IT’S COM­FORT­ING TO KNOW THAT EVEN SHAKE­SPEARE GOT WRITER’S BLOCK. Just writ­ing a story about a play based on a movie about a fic­ti­tious his­tory of the bard is enough to give a re­porter anx­i­ety (I’m plagued by thoughts like “He’d hate that opening sen­tence.”). So it’s im­pres­sive that The Chicago Shake­speare Theater—along with di­rec­tor Rachel Rock­well—dared to adapt the Academy Award­win­ning movie “Shake­speare in Love” for the stage with­out any hes­i­ta­tion.

At press time, the play, which opened April 15 and runs through June 11, was still in re­hearsals, but ac­cord­ing to Rock­well, it would do jus­tice to both the film and the leg­endary play­wright. “We did a stum­ble-through of act one and, by the end, the whole com­pany was cry­ing and laugh­ing and cheer­ing,” she re­mem­bers. “That doesn’t hap­pen very of­ten in a re­hearsal room. When that hap­pens, you’re like, ‘Okay, we might be on to some­thing.’”

For those un­fa­mil­iar with the Gwyneth Pal­trow film, “Shake­speare in Love” cen­ters on an unin­spired Wil­liam Shake­speare who finds his muse in Vi­ola de Lesseps, and pens the epic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s a story that hinges on its leads: Nick Re­hberger and Kate McGonigle. Rock­well is con­fi­dent they can de­liver. “They have in­tense chem­istry … [and a] kind of de­vo­tion to one an­other that al­lows us to go deeper,” she says.

Rock­well cer­tainly knows how to get the most out of her cast. She earned her chops as an ac­tress in shows like “Mama Mia” on Broad­way be­fore switch­ing to di­rect­ing, where she has found even greater suc­cess (she’s ac­cu­mu­lated four Jeff Awards and 16 nom­i­na­tions). In 2016, her pro­duc­tion of “Ride the Cy­clone” even cracked the Best Theatre list by the New York Times.

An ar­dent fan of the 1998 film, Rock­well jumped at the op­por­tu­nity to di­rect the play. “I don’t even think they fin­ished the sen­tence be­fore I said yes,” she laughs. Still, this rep­re­sents a de­par­ture for the di­rec­tor, who has typ­i­cally fo­cused on mu­si­cals. But she finds rhythm in the play’s po­etry, say­ing, “Shake­speare’s text does for us what songs would do in a mu­si­cal.”

But theater adds new di­men­sions—and new re­stric­tions— to any adap­tion. In the movie, char­ac­ters ca­vort around old-timey Lon­don. To mimic that ef­fect, Rock­well uses el­e­va­tors and an enor­mous turntable to al­low sets to rise, fall and com­pletely ro­tate, giv­ing what she calls “a won­der­ful sense of travel.” The play will also fea­ture a new score by Neil Bar­tram as well as in­tense sword fight­ing to keep au­di­ences en­thralled. But film fans, fear not: “If you love the movie, you’re go­ing to love the play,” as­sures Rock­well.

As Shake­speare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And whether on the big screen or the stage, “Shake­speare in Love” blos­soms.

Tick­ets start at $48, 800 E. Grand Ave., 312.595.5600, Chicagoshakes.com

Rachel Rock­well di­rects the cast.

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