Keegan Theater mounts regional premiere of ‘Shakespeare in Love’

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Anyone who says the Bard can’t put bottoms in seats doesn’t remember the movie “Shakespeare in Love,” one of the top 10 box office hits of 1998, which went on to win seven Oscars, including best picture and best original screenplay . Of course, it didn’t hurt that it was co-written by Tom Stoppard, who added a lot of good jokes, both obvious and subtle, to the story of a 29-year-old William Shakespeare fighting through writer’s block to finish “ Romeo and Juliet.”

Much of the film’s pleasure came from the way Shakespeare’s evolving script echoed the playwright’s offstage life: a new but forbidden romance and endless quarrels with the local authorities. How much stronger these echoes might have been, many thought, if we had heard them spoken on an actual stage rather than a movie screen. Disney Theatrical Productions recognized the possibilities and commissioned English playwright Lee Hall to adapt the Stoppard-Marc Norman screenplay for the stage in 2014. That show is now having its regional premiere at the Keegan Theater through July 16.

“The script is clearly not the same as the screenplay,” says Terrance Fleming, the 30-year-old actor who plays the title role. “We don’t have hundreds of extras. We can’t zoom in for close-ups. And we’re keeping the love scenes PG. But to be there with these people onstage, breathing the same air in the same room, it brings the theatrical aspect of the story to life. We’re at a play about a guy who writes a play, and who performs in that play, in this play. That kind of doubling is a lot of the fun.”

Fleming is not intimidated by the challenge of playing one of the English language’s greatest writers. As a young person trying to get ahead in the theater world of 2022, he has enough in common with someone trying to do the same in 1593 that he can connect the character to his own background. Just as the 20-something Shakespeare will write a script, act in one or do almost anything to pay the bills, so will Fleming. Just as his predecessor had to move from Stratford-upon-Avon to London for better professional opportunities, Fleming had to move from Hattiesburg, Miss., to the Baltimore-Washington area.

“You have to take your own experience and use that,” explains Fleming. “As a Black man playing someone everyone knows is a White man, I’m already telling the audience that we’re showing them a Shakespeare rather than the Shakespeare. Every time [the character of] Lord Wessex mentions his plantation in Virginia, it makes my skin crawl a bit. I’m not going to run away from that; I’m going to use that to highlight the class differences in the play.”

Wessex is the aristocrat engaged to marry Viola, Shakespeare’s secret lover and the cross-dressing actor playing Romeo in the play within the play. But Wessex isnt the only challenge facing the struggling scribbler.

“He’s having problems with his current wife, Anne Hathaway,” Fleming says. “People are doing his plays at a theater without paying him. He’s taken money for a play he can’t finish. And he can’t be with Viola the way he wants to. He used to get away from such problems with his writing, but right now he’s stuck. He writes, ‘Shall I compare thee … ‘ and he can’t get past that first phrase. Because he’s halted in his writing. He’s all screwed up at the moment. He’s not at the breaking point, but you can see he’s getting there.”

As Shakespeare’s affair with Viola blossoms, the words get unstuck inside him, and he writes the balcony scene for “Romeo and Juliet.” He’s obviously a genius, but he’s also a streetwise hustler trying to evade his romantic and theatrical rivals until he can scrape up enough money and enough pages of text to keep them at bay for a few more days.

“The purists who want to keep Shakespeare on a pedestal,” Fleming says, “are not the people who should go see ‘Shakespeare in Love.’ He wasn’t in a tower writing poetry. The man had to make money, and he had to live life.”

Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. 202-265-3767. www.keegantheatre.com.

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