“I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.”
So says Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I in the 1998 film “Shakespeare in Love.” The comment is expressed in sympathy with Viola de Lesseps, a lone female in a sea of testosterone who disguises herself in the period comedy-drama as a man in order to be legally permitted to audition for one of Shakespeare’s plays.
It is one of the girl-power moments in this imaginary tale of an ambitious woman who, in going after her dreams, both seduces and inspires the young genius playwright that Ken Washington understands will resonate with today’s audiences. “It embraces Shakespeare,” says the Smithtown Center for Performing Arts director, “but in more of an accessible format.”
Adapted for the stage more than a decade after the best picture Oscar winner’s release, “Shakespeare in Love,” is enjoying its Long Island premiere through March 4. It references many of the characters, plot devices and even lines from the great dramatist’s masterpieces. In the modern adaptation, young married Will translates his romance with the already-promised Viola onto the page as the forbidden love between Romeo and Juliet.
“Shakespeare can be a lot of work. Trying to get people today stimulated with words is a tricky endeavor,” Washington notes. “This play takes highlights, of his language, the parts of Romeo and Juliet you want to listen to — the balcony scene, the death scene — and makes it more approachable for everyday audiences.”
It also takes a story that draws from the theater but was conceived as a movie back to the stage. “As a director,” Washington says, “it’s a challenge taking something cinematic and make it work for the stage, taking audiences from the queen’s court to Greenwich to the wings of The Rose theater to Viola’s bedroom to the banks of the River Thames to the streets of London.”
Equally difficult, he notes, is conveying the intimacy in some of the scenes between Will and Viola, played by Long Island regional theater veterans Andrew Murano and Katie Ferretti. “We can’t do close-ups,” he explains. “The gaze of the audience is from one place, their seats.”
With its sweet love story, a whole lot of swashbuckling, and behind-the-scenes intrigue, “Shakespeare in Love” is not only a Valentine to one of the greatest writers of all time but a perfect evening of theater to share with your own paramour.
WHEN | WHERE Through March 4, 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St.
INFO $20-$35; 631-724-3700, smithtownpac.org