Today marks the 448th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth (Well, approximately: Though no one knows his birth date for sure, it’s traditionally celebrated April 23). It’s also the 396th anniversary of his death, which occurred on the same date 52 years later. Today is a double dose of Shakespeare, and he is virtually certain to be lauded at the biggest theater event in Washington, tonight: the Helen Hayes Awards.
Washington is a Shakespeare-crazed city. We’ve got the Shakespeare Theatre, the Folger Theatre, Shakespeare-inspired WSC Avant Bard, and the nearby Chesapeake Shakespeare Company — as well as all of the numerous theater companies who include one or two of his works in their seasons each year. This year’s most-nominated production in the Helen Hayes awards, with 14 nods, is Synetic Theater’s “King Lear,” an inventive, silent production that staged the play in a dystopic world populated by clowns.
Local playwright Brett Steven Abelman tabulated the Bard’s influence on area theaters and found that over the past 10 years, 184 productions were works of Shakespeare, with the number of Shakespeare plays per season growing as the decade progressed. This doesn’t even include works that are based on Shakespeare, such as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” or “The Boys From Syracuse,” both of which have been produced in recent years. “Hamlet” was the most-produced play, brought to local stages 14 times.
So why do Washington theaters love Shakespeare so much? Shakespeare is highly adaptable: Companies can play it safe with traditional stagings or turn it on its head with all-puppet, all-girl or all-naked productions. It’s also accessible for smaller companies who can’t afford to pay for the rights to a contemporary playwright’s work, since Shakespeare is in the public domain.
Tonight at Helen Hayes, Shakespeare is likely to be a winner. In addition to the 14 nominations for Synetic’s “King Lear,” other Shakespeare productions have received nominations: “Othello” at the Folger Theater, “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Shakespeare Theatre, and Arena Stage’s “Equivocation,” a play about William Shakespeare’s theater troupe.
A Shakespearean play has won the coveted “Outstanding Resident Play” award every year for the past five years. With the nomination sweep by “King Lear,” it’s likely that the Bard could keep the streak going through 2012. The only question is: Will the hosts and award recipients celebrate “Talk Like Shakespeare Day” when they claim their prize?