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