There is more of Shakespeare in love in the Oscar-winning 1998 John Madden film than there is in the more recent theater piece of the same name.
“Shakespeare in Love,” adapted by Lee Hall from the award-winning screenplay by Marc Norman and British stage icon Tom Stoppard, debuted in London in 2014 and is now enjoying a sprawling, spirited Boston debut by SpeakEasy Stage Company (at the Calderwood Pavilion through Feb. 10). Curtailed is the swooning romance between the still formulating Bard and the lovely, stage-struck chattel portrayed in the film by Gwyneth Paltrow. Hall has honed the material instead into a funny valentine to Elizabethan theater-makers operating on inspiration, desperation and a shoestring.
It probably helps that the film came out long enough ago that most theatergoers will be operating on little more than name recognition and a fond recall of Stoppard’s cleverness and Paltrow’s Viola striding onto the beach of her American Illyria. (Never mind that six or seven years ensued between the writing of “Romeo and Juliet” and the penning of “Twelfth Night” and that the real Shakespeare was hardly tongue-tied before hatching the former.)
In any event, it works for Hall — best known as the screenwriter of “Billy Elliot” and librettist of “Billy Elliot the Musical” — to focus less on the sensual love story than on the forging of a poet in his rough-and-tumble 16th-century theatrical element, replete with managers, moneylenders and mountebanks. Fittingly, in Jenna McFarland Lord’s scenic design for SpeakEasy, the rough-hewn spectacle unfolds on a multilevel wooden structure reminiscent of an Elizabethan theater, often beneath a rain or canopy of scribbled pages. After all, the play’s the thing.
When we meet the fledgling Bard, surrounded by the questionable thespians depending on him, he’s having a hard time. Even prompted, indeed led by the nose by fellow scribe Christopher Marlowe, he can’t seem to hurdle a writer’s block that has him chewing his quill over Sonnet 18.
Meanwhile, a loan shark named Fennyman has set his goons on Philip Henslowe, manager of the Rose Theatre, to whom Shakespeare owes a play tentatively titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” At auditions for the as-yet-unwritten comedy, the young playwright at last hears his words spoken naturally and passionately by a young man who turns out to be a young woman and the muse who will untie his poetic tongue. Through his brief, clandestine affair with Viola de Lesseps, a wealthy tradesman’s daughter who is betrothed to a lord, Shakespeare will find himself and translate that discovery into reams and reams of immortal iambic pentameter.
Thanks to his backstage focus, Hall is able to embellish the story with a cornucopia of Shakespearean allusion, not to mention big chunks of “Romeo and Juliet” and nods to “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Noises Off.” Some of this is arguably silly: upon the discovery that the actor cast as Romeo is actually a woman, the Bard lets loose an “Oh brave new world!” And a cute little dog’s exit from an early scene is prompted by the command, “Out, damn Spot!”
On the other hand, music director David Reiffel’s settings of Shakespeare songs (mostly from “Twelfth Night”), accompanied by cello, lute and mandolin, are atmospheric and lovely — as is a madrigal-like dirge for Marlowe built on Sonnet 18. I also enjoyed such droll anachronisms as the framed headshots held before them by auditioning actors as if in some Elizabethan “A Chorus Line.” The costumes by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, which range from doublet and hose to leathers and punk wear, also contribute to an ironic bleeding of the times.
“Shakespeare in Love” — its sweeping jumble of romance, rivalry, swashbuckling and Shakespeare simulation cannily balanced by helmsman Scott Edmiston — constitutes an undertaking for SpeakEasy Stage. Moving from the Roberts Studio to the larger Wimberly Theatre, the troupe fields a cast of 18 in a work that incorporates song, sword fighting, low-tech pageantry and a pared-down “Romeo and Juliet” seen from both backstage and front of house. That’s ingeniously, if simply, accomplished with the aid of diaphanous two-story curtains, much as Viola de Lesseps’ inevitable exit takes the form of a wooden barge being steered across a turquoise river of fabric.
The large cast includes a number of area favorites, but is led by Newton native George Olesky in his Boston stage debut as a handsome, nimble, hot-headed Shakespeare in the making. His Viola is the credibly determined and touching Jennifer Ellis, who occasionally gets to exercise her lustrous pipes (though her Juliet’s diction could be clearer).
Nancy E. Carroll is at her champagne-driest as the frank, imperious Queen Elizabeth, and Eddie Shields is an androgynous, very Alan Cumming-like Marlowe. Lewis D. Wheeler wisely underplays the arrogant, smugly usurping Lord Wessex, who marries Viola for her father’s money, and Carolyn Saxon is all earthy conspiracy as Viola’s abetting, big-voiced Nurse. Jesse Hinson is a preening rock star of a Ned Alleyn in sunglasses; Ken Baltin is a frantic, beleaguered but improbably optimistic Henslowe; Remo Airaldi is the thuggish moneyman Fennyman, bitten to the excitable quick by the theater bug.
As with most transmogrifications from screen to stage, however worthy, the question must remain: why do it in the first place? It’s not as if the celluloid is as ephemeral as what goes on in “this wooden O.” But in the case of “Shakespeare in Love,” adapter Hall, shifting the focus from historical romance to the nuts, bolts, perils and exhilarations of the theater, has put his love letter to the stage where it belongs: on one.
“Shakespeare in Love” runs through Feb. 10 at the Calderwood Pavilion.