This summer, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is trying something new in Southmoreland Park: a play not written by William Shakespeare. The organization has updated its mission to expand the repertoire and showcase works inspired by the English poet and playwright.
"Our primary goal is to bring Shakespeare to as many people as possible and make it as accessible as possible to as many people as we can," says Sidonie Garrett, the festival's executive artistic director. "So I'm finding pathways in through other works."
That's the case with this year's "Shakespeare in Love," which got its start as a 1998 film that garnered seven Oscars in 1999, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The screenplay, written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard, was later adapted for the stage.
As of the 2017-2018 season, it was the most-produced play in the United States and Canada, with more than 75 productions at Shakespeare festivals and regional theaters.
Here are some key things to know about "Shakespeare in Love."
1. The play's the thing.
"Shakespeare in Love" takes place in London, England, in 1593.
In the first scene, Will Shakespeare (played by Matt Schwader), a playwright, poet and actor, sits writing at a desk. Shakespeare is working on a sonnet. He's struggling with writers' block. Soon, he meets his muse, Viola DeLesseps (played by Hillary Clemens), and starts feverishly writing "Romeo and Juliet," the play-within-the-play.
According to Garrett, "Shakespeare in Love" has everything.
"It's comedy, it's tragedy, it's romance, there are sword fights. There's period dancing. There is history. It's chock full of all of it," she says.
"It is a romp and moves quickly," she adds, "but it's really funny."
2. It's unusually fast-paced.
Veteran festival actor John Rensenhouse (who plays Phillip Henslowe) has performed a lot of meaty roles at Southmoreland Park through the years, including Hamlet, Julius Caesar and King Lear.
"Some of the roles that I've done have been heavy," says Rensenhouse. "But this year, because of the shorter scenes and a non-verse script, I don't want to take it too lightly, but it's a bit more of a lark."
Festival-goers will want to be mindful that because the scenes in "Shakespeare in Love" are short, with no extended soliloquies, they might miss something if they sneak off to buy some kettle corn or visit the porta potties.
"This piece is a little more subtle, the plot points and stuff, you sort of have to be paying more attention even though it's easier to understand the words," Rensenhouse says.
Even if much of the language is contemporary, the costumes are not.
"We're going hardcore Shakespeare period," says Rensenhouse. "Pumpkin pants, the whole nine yards, tights."
3. There's an adorable dog.
This year's cast marks the largest in festival history, with 27 actors and a canine named Buster. The dog's owner, Jan Rogge, plays Queen Elizabeth I.
Buster's role is small but lively. "Shakespeare in Love" sprinkles in works by Shakespeare, including scenes from "Two Gentlemen in Verona" put on for the queen by a company called Chamberlain's Men. Buster appears because, as Richard Burbage, the lead actor of the company (played by Matt Rapport) puts it: "The Queen loves a dog."
This is Buster's second time on stage at the Shakespeare Festival. He was cast as "The Dog" in the 2012 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
4. Shakespeare isn't the only one in love.
Actors Hillary Clemens (as Viola DeLesseps) and Matt Schwader (as Will Shakespeare) are married with two kids, a three-year-old and an eight-month-old. The festival has an intense rehearsal schedule, including a stretch of 12-hour days leading up to this year's expanded four weeks of performances.
But, as Schwader puts it, "How do you say no to an opportunity like this? She's my favorite scene partner, so it's just a blast."
The actors have played love interests a handful of times before, including Daisy and Gatsby in "The Great Gatsby" at Indiana Repertory Theatre in 2015 and Romeo and Juliet in Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival's "Romeo and Juliet" in 2015.
"It's a real gift to do roles like this together," says Clemens. "We've been very lucky in that regard."
5. There's always a first time.
"Shakespeare in Love" is a fun, romantic comedy, but both Schwader and Clemens also describe it as a "love letter" to Shakespeare and to the theater.
"One of my favorite things about doing Shakespeare is that even though it's been around for over 400 years, it's still new to somebody in the audience," says Schwader. "And every time I work on a Shakespeare play, I get that thrill, realizing somebody is seeing it or hearing it for the first time."
UMKC professor of theatre Felicia Londré, the festival's honorary co-founder, says the way that Shakespeare is embedded in the play has the potential to reach new audiences who might perceive language as a barrier.
"I think people will see that it's seamless," says Londre, "when they're with this context of modern dialogue and then suddenly they segue into lines from Shakespeare, are people going to be thrown out of the play because they don't understand it? No, they're not. They're going to flow right with it."
Heart of America Shakespeare Festival's "Shakespeare in Love," 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays through July 7 (no show on July 4) at Southmoreland Park, 4600 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64111.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.