Keegan Theatre stages ‘Shakespeare in Love’ about Will’s spark to write ‘Romeo & Juliet’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Shakespeare in Love' at Keegan Theatre (Part 1)

Film critics remain stunned that “Shakespeare in Love” upset “Saving Private Ryan” to win the Best Picture Oscar. Still, there’s no denying the script’s brilliant premise, which you can rediscover on stage with the regional premiere at Keegan Theatre now through July 16.

Based on the 1998 screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman that was adapted into a play by Lee Hall in 2014, the story follows Young Will Shakespeare, who battles writer’s block with a deadline quickly approaching. He suddenly finds inspiration in his muse.

“It’s historical fiction,” co-director Ricky Drummond told WTOP, “but … his love life with Viola and the struggles with that are sort of mirroring what he ends up writing in ‘Romeo & Juliet.'”

How does the show portray Young Shakespeare’s personality?

Co-director Douglas DuBois told WTOP that “We see Shakespeare as a struggling writer. Regardless of how great Shakespeare has become in our time and how celebrated he is, he’s presented as human, a man with faults, a man who struggles when he creates his work. We see a trajectory of growth.”

The fun of the production is, of course, the fact that the audience knows what the characters don’t — that this no-name Shakespeare (Terrance Fleming) is about to become a massive star.

“The joy of the show is watching him slowly learn how he works, how he’s inspired, how he writes, and goes from a struggling writer to someone who — it just flows out of him, the faucets open and his creativity is just unending,” Drummond said.

Meantime, Viola (Ashley Nguyen) tricks the patriarchal society to appear in the play.

“Viola disguises herself, puts on a hat, boy’s wig and mustache, pretending to be Thomas Kent, shocking Shakespeare as this person who came out of nowhere as this phenomenal actor,” Drummond said. “We’ve done our best to give it our own flair and remember that we’re in a world post #MeToo, giving agency to women to write out that 1990s [sexism].”

Some of the thematic elements are surprisingly timely, DuBois said: “Shakespeare himself had lived through a time in London with a bubonic plague. He was able to stay present, create and keep his community active. That’s what we’re seeing here in D.C. … We want to bring joy, love and bring back the excitement of communities being together.”

DuBois said the audience experience includes a feast of period visuals, making the theater look as much like it would have in Shakespeare’s day as possible, and Elizabethan costumes that are regal, beautiful and colorful.”

The end goal is to please fans of the movie and those who have never seen it.

“If you loved the movie, you’ll love the play,” Drummond said. “There are a few smart tweaks to adapt it for the stage.” And while it’s not a musical, there’s plenty of music from “wonderful instrumentalists that guide us from scene to scene. … With 28 scenes in 20 locations, you have to use a little theater magic.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Shakespeare in Love' at Keegan Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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