The tradition of journeyman performers honing their craft in the provinces while awaiting stardom in the big city is even more ancient than the Elizabethan stage, and Broadway-bound actors have long looked to regional theaters in California or Colorado to burnish their Playbill bios. But increasingly, word is getting around that Orlando is the place to be, according to the two New York-based leads in Orlando Shakespeare Theater's sumptuous staging of Shakespeare in Love, running now through March 25 in repertory with Twelfth Night.
Susan Maris, who plays Viola de Lesseps, and John P. Keller, who portrays the titular playwright, have both worked in Manhattan and across the country, but neither hesitated when offered the opportunity to spend the winter way off-Broadway in Florida's warmth. I interviewed the pair between their matinee and evening performances, and despite being admittedly exhausted ("My father once said, 'Parenthood is both draining and sustaining at the same time,'" Keller says, "and I feel that way about being an actor"), they were eager to share with me their positive experiences in our city.
After four previous seasons on Orlando Shakes' stage, Keller is no stranger to our theater community, but it wasn't always so. "I will be completely honest, I'd never heard of the company when I first auditioned for it," Keller admits. "It was a cold-call audition that my agent set up, and my agent was familiar with [artistic director] Jim Helsinger and Orlando Shakespeare. I remember vividly that first audition ... it was a really fun atmosphere. I remember the audition being fun, and when I got the offer I said, 'Why not, I'll go to Orlando for three months in the middle of winter!'" That decision led him to roles at OST in Adventures of Pericles, Tempest, Othello, Sense and Sensibility, Henry V and more.
Milwaukee native Maris, on the other hand, is making her Orlando debut ("My first time here, and hopefully not my last," she quips), and says our city garnered her attention "because people come down here; they work, they come back to New York, you see them and they say, 'Go, it's great!'" Keller concurs, adding, "It's amazing how many more actors now talk about Orlando Shakespeare in the circle, in the network of theater. Susan and I have a lot of mutual friends who do regional theater who have worked here ... it's a small world."
Shakespeare in Love is based on the 1998 film directed by John Madden, but don't worry if you haven't seen the movie since it won seven Oscars (including Best Picture), because Maris hasn't either. "When it came out, I remember loving it and watching it a couple of times, but that was a long time ago," Maris says, adding, "I don't want to think about Gwyneth Paltrow every time I go on stage; that sounds like a nightmare." Instead, her interpretation of Viola, who she describes as "full of spirit and love of life and fire, brave and willing to take risks and make sacrifices," is informed by digging into the text that Lee Hall adapted from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's award-winning screenplay.
Keller's challenge is to contend not only with the celluloid shade of Joseph Fiennes, but every audience member's preconceptions of England's greatest author, which he gleefully subverts. "Shakespeare has this monumental reputation, he's revered in so many ways," John says. "The fun thing about this play is that it's the moment before that person becomes, when the person is still completely in self-doubt and has not had a success."
You can understand and enjoy this show even if you don't know Ned Alleyn (Jacob Dresch) from Ned Flanders, thanks to director Richard Garner's cinematic staging – abetted by Kim Ball's choreography and Bert Scott's lighting – which flows seamlessly without ever stopping for a set change. Angela Calin's elaborate period costumes are another high point of the polished production design, and include 13 changes for Maris. But Bard aficionados will appreciate the play on a deeper level, as Maris observes: "I have people come see this that know less than nothing about Shakespeare and they loved it, but if you do have a love and curiosity for him and his life, it's delightful to think about how he got that line for Hamlet or Miranda."
One thing OST's production shares with the movie version is the palpable camaraderie among the cast, starting with the chemistry between the romantic leads. Despite having many mutual friends, Keller and Maris weren't previously acquainted but they both said (in unison) that they "hit it off fast and furious." That swift embrace extended to the ensemble, which includes Shakes stalwarts Philip Nolen (hilarious as Philip "It's a mystery!" Henslowe), Timothy Williams (a perfectly pompous Richard Burbage) and Anne Hering, who one-ups Dame Judi Dench by playing both Queen Elizabeth and Viola's nurse.
"I feel like this is one of those companies where, when you're in a rehearsal room, it really is a 'company of players' atmosphere," Keller says. Hopefully he and Maris will go on to share the good word about Orlando's artists with the Big Apple.