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Massive Shakespeare Festival Takes Over Washington's Cultural Venues

William Shakespeare may be known as the Bard of Avon, but these days, he could also be called the Poet of the Potomac, Prince of Potowmack, King of K Street, or even Washington’s new William.

That’s because the District of Columbia is in the midst of one of the largest, most ambitious festivals celebrating Shakespeare and his enduring influence ever held anywhere in the world.

And that’s not Bard hyperbole, either. It’s the Shakespeare in Washington Festival, which officially began with a staged reading of “Twelfth Night” in January at the Kennedy Center and will run through June of this year.

Some 60 institutions are participating in the massive undertaking—theaters, opera companies, museums, film institutes, educational groups, dance companies and orchestras of all sorts. There will be 100 presentations of different works—most, but not all, outright theatrical productions of the Bard’s plays, in addition to operas, films, lectures, discussions, ballets, modern dance, one-person shows, and contemporary plays with Shakespearean sources and themes.

In very un-Shakespearean terms: It ain’t small.

The festival, several years in the making, hopes to put Washington further on the national and international stage as a Shakespeare hothouse and cultural center.

The offerings include virtually all of the classics, many reimagined into several different renditions, such as separate productions of “Romeo and Juliet” by the Kirov Ballet, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and the Washington National Opera.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company is offering an entire season filled with classic works as well—currently “Richard III” with Geraint Wyn Davies. Also on tap are “Titus Andronicus”—easily the Bard’s most bloody, crowd-pleasing play in his day—and a new “Hamlet.”

Meanwhile the Kennedy Center, in addition to its top-heavy musical and dance offerings, is bringing back the Royal Shakespeare Company with “Coriolanus,” a play about ancient Rome that Washington politicians and their retinues have always taken to heart. And both the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare Theatre co-present a unique evening with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy as he presides over the trial of Hamlet.

In fact, the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare Theatre—and their two associated Michaels—are the key movers and shakers of this six-month festival. Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser conceived of the idea and Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn served as curator of the festival, which is to say that he had the unenviable task of making things happen among a gathering of 60 diverse artistic groups.

Kaiser is no stranger to ambitious projects ever since he took over as president of what’s viewed as the nation’s cultural center. Under his leadership, a new theater for young people has been inaugurated at the Kennedy Center and a comprehensive Stephen Sondheim festival turned out to be a major hit, not just here but in New York and all over the country.

Kaiser is a serious man with serious ambitions for the city and his center. He wants not only to put Washington in the national spotlight, but to share the bounty by doing joint projects with the city’s cultural institutions. Eclectic in his tastes—he initiated last year’s Country Musical Festival at the Kennedy Center in part because he happens to like country music—Kaiser said he thought it was time for something a little bigger.

“There’s no more influential, compelling figure in theater, in literature, in the arts than Shakespeare,” Kaiser said. “And Shakespeare is very much a presence in Washington to begin with, with the Folger, with the Shakespeare Theatre Company and other institutions.”

Kahn became friends with Kaiser after the pair worked on the Kennedy Center’s Tennessee Williams festival several years ago, with Kahn directing an evening of one-acts that became a highlight of the star-studded festival.

“When I first had the idea, I thought Michael was the perfect person to do this, to be the curator,” Kaiser said. “It sort of grew.”

Meanwhile, Kahn rounded up both the usual Shakespeare suspects in Washington—his own company, the Washington Shakespeare Company, the Folger Shakespeare Library—as well as some of the not so usual, such as the Russian-flavored and award-winning Synetic Theater, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, and Firebelly Productions of Arlington, Va.

Washington’s love affair with Shakespeare has actually been something of a secret to the rest of the world. This is the town after all where the Booth family, father and sons, wowed audiences as the greatest triumphant of Shakespearean actors. Abraham Lincoln was actually a big fan of both Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, his future assassin.

Further evidence of D.C.’s bond with the Bard abounds: This year the Folger celebrates its 75th anniversary as a Shakespearean library, research and study center, and its Elizabethan Theatre, in the manner and style of the Bard’s time, will be very much a part of the festival. And for years, under Kahn, the Shakespeare Theatre—which gets an additional theater with the Harman Center for the Arts later this year—has become an internationally renowned company.

But Washington theater companies with a contemporary bent have also found ways to go Bard. Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of the cutting-edge Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is doing “She Stoops to Comedy,” a farcical new play by David Greenspan that includes backstage antics from a tour of “As You Like It,” as well as gender-bending, cross-dressing and other sundry manners. According to Shalwitz, it’s all part of the Bard’s brave and flexible repertoire. “That’s very much Shakespeare—the confusion of sexual identity and the comedy that comes from that.”

Observed Kahn of the Shakespeare Theatre: “People sometimes say it’s the plots that make Shakespeare so popular and so influential to other art forms…. I don’t think that’s it by itself. It’s what he’s done with the familiar characters. It’s their outsize, universal qualities that translate to music, to dance, to mime, to everything else.”

Without question, the Bard is a boon for actors who find in his words and his characters a bottomless well, even if you’re playing Bottom himself. Floyd King, who played the silly Sir Andrew Aguecheek at the “Twelfth Night” reading, is one of Washington’s character actor treasures, especially in Shakespearean forays.

“It’s probably not so much an issue today, but there’s a persistent cliché that only the English can play the Bard’s characters the way they’re supposed to be played,” said King, who is also currently in “Richard III” as King Edward. “And that’s not true today, if it ever was. His characters are a challenge to play and a joy—I never get tired of it. And the cliché is true: There are no small parts.” And apparently, there are no small festivals either.

The Shakespeare in Washington Festival through the end of June 2007 various Washington-area venues For a complete list of events and performances, please visit the official Web site at ShakespeareinWashington.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999