Christopher Peltier plays William Shakespeare in the Great River Shakespeare Festival’s presentation of “Shakespeare in Love.” The play opens this weekend.
Photo by Chaz Mayo.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Oh, by the way, there will be a dog in the cast for this summer’s production of “Shakespeare in Love,” Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson mentioned at one of the theater company’s first meetings this spring. Actor Caroline Amos stopped him right there.
“I couldn’t contain myself, and my hand shot up,” Amos explained. “Who’s taking care of the dog?” she asked. “Because it has to be me.”
Amos got her wish. As the dog handler for “Shakespeare in Love,” Amos escorts Etta the dog onstage for Etta’s role as an animal actor that the play’s fictional theater company cannot quite seem to keep in line. It turns out that hitting all the right gags while pretending to not follow commands takes a fair bit of obedience. It is Etta’s first acting gig, but she may have found her calling. The dog’s scene-stealing presence is a running joke throughout the show. “As soon as Etta walks on, I may as well be talking about a 1990s sitcom because no one will be listening to me,” actor Christopher Peltier said. Amos is a dog lover with no pet of her own, so she is elated about spending time with her canine co-star. “She is the most perfect little angel baby,” Amos gushed.
The regional premiere of a Hollywood blockbuster adapted for the stage, GRSF’s “Shakespeare in Love” is full of sword fights, love scenes, physical comedy, and mistaken identities. It is not full of Shakespearian language. “‘Shakespeare in Love’ is written in a much more straightforward way, using modern colloquialisms and then mixing in some Shakespeare here and there,” Peltier said. “The hope is that it’s one of those plays that people who are maybe nervous about seeing a Shakespeare play and maybe haven’t been to the festival before might give this one a try,” Scholz-Carlson stated. For aficionados, the play is littered with Easter eggs that allude to the works of William Shakespeare. “Shakespeare in Love” is the fictional tale of a young Shakespeare (Peltier) struggling with writer’s block until he falls for Viola de Lessup (Anna Sundberg). De Lessup dreams of being an actor, but women are banned from the stage in Elizabethan England and her rich father has other plans.
“Shakespeare in Love” is one of the most intensive productions GRSF has ever presented. In addition to the sword fights and a trio of live musicians, the play calls for lightning-quick scene changes. It is film-like in its rapid cuts from one scene to the next. To make that possible in live theater, the crew built a rotating set, which spins around to become a tavern in one scene and a palace the next — all controlled by a set of custom-built pneumatic brakes. In one stage-within-a-stage scene, the set spins constantly so that the audience’s perspective rotates between characters performing scenes from “Romeo and Juliet” and views of the characters arguing amongst each other backstage. “It’s amazing,” Peltier said. “Things are added to it and subtracted from it to create a two-story, living, breathing set.”
Most other theater productions of “Shakespeare in Love” have featured casts of 20 people or more. GRSF is doing it with 16. Amos is playing three small characters and serving as the dog handler and dialect coach for “Shakespeare in Love,” as well as playing the lead in one of GRSF’s other big plays this season, “All’s Well That Ends Well.” “That’s a lot of things,” she acknowledged. If Winonans see Amos talking to herself while running around Lake Winona, she is just practicing her lines. “I look like kind of a crazy person because I’m shouting iambic pentameter all over the place,” she said. “But it’s also a great way to increase my lung capacity so I can get thoughts out in one breath.”
The costuming for “Shakespeare in Love” is more elaborate than usual for GRSF productions, with full-on period costumes. The quick scene changes, combined with the fact that many cast members are playing multiple roles, require some very speedy costume changes. “Everybody is changing costumes on every single scene,” Scholz-Carlson said. Actor Melissa Maxwell plays both Viola’s nurse and Queen Elizabeth. To keep up with the rapid pace, GRSF’s crew designed the nurse’s costume to fit entirely underneath Maxwell’s elaborate attire for her scenes as Queen Elizabeth. Sundberg, meanwhile, needs to appear onstage as a male character and reappear seconds later as a woman.
The production is the first time in GRSF’s 15-year history that the festival is depicting William Shakespeare himself on stage. Peltier plays the lovestruck playwright, as well as the male lead in “All’s Well That Ends Well.” “He’s a terrific actor,” Scholz-Carlson said. “He’s one of those rare actors in that he’s great at playing those sensitive love scenes and giving depth to his characters, and then he’s a gifted comedian. His approach to the character is always a little goofy and self-deprecating, and it just works so well.”
“Shakespeare in Love” opens this Friday. Tonight and tomorrow evening, there will be a few more preview presentations of “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” and the two-person play starring Scholz-Carlson and Sundberg, “Venus in Fur.” Those plays officially open this weekend and run until August 4 and 5. Audiences are invited to pay-what-you-will for the preview performances today and tomorrow. Ticket prices for Tuesday performances throughout the summer are discounted to $12. There will be free concerts outside Winona State University’s Performing Arts Center before every Friday and Saturday performance this season, and a slew of other special events. For more information, visit www.grsf.org.