Where there’s a Will: Shakespeare’s influence in Washington

The Shakespeare Theatre Company recruits politicians (that’s Rep. Jim McDermott and Sen. Susan Collins, above) and judges for its annual events. The Shakespeare Theatre Company recruits politicians (that’s Rep. Jim McDermott and Sen. Susan Collins, above) and judges for its annual events. (Kevin Allen)

Much ado has been made about the various Shakespearean elements in “House of Cards,” the political drama set in D.C.

Kevin Spacey’s character breaks the fourth wall, just like the titular king in “Richard III,” his power-hungry wife acts like Lady Macbeth and his grudge against the president is straight out of “Othello.”

But that’s nothing compared to the influence that Shakespeare — whose 450th birthday is next month — wields in real-life Washington.

It makes sense that Shakespeare’s works, which are populated by royalty and rulers, would resonate in the nation’s capital, arguably the most powerful city in the world. He penned all of his memorable phrases while living in London at the dawn of the British Empire.

So the barbs about politics and law that once drew titters from the crowds at the Globe Theatre are met with the same knowing laughter by Washington audiences today. And the questions Shakespeare raised in his plays are still topics for debate in the highest echelons of government. (Sometimes literally: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presides each year over the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Mock Trial, which makes a federal case out of a plot point.)

The Bard’s status here has been boosted even higher by the presence of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which sits just a block from the U.S. Capitol. The marble building is as impressive as any presidential monument, especially considering the treasures inside. It’s regarded as the world’s finest collection of works by, about and related to the playwright.

Take the First Folio, the book published in 1623 that collected 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. “It’s the one with the familiar picture of the bald guy,” says Garland Scott, the Folger’s head of external relations. Of the 750 copies printed, there are only about 230 copies still in existence, and the Folger has 82 of them. (A Japanese university comes in a distant second with a dozen.)

The library attracts researchers from around the globe, so Shakespeare is on a lot of minds in D.C. He’s also all over our stages.

According to the Theatre Communications Group, which keeps tabs on performances nationwide, D.C. has an impressive appetite for the Bard. Reports from the organization’s members show that Shakespeare plays have accounted for 12.9 percent of their productions in town since 1998. That’s more than double the national percentage, says executive director Teresa Eyring, adding that D.C. productions are done by “the best of the best.”

On any given weekend, Washington theatergoers have several Shakespearean options, many of them innovative interpretations, says Tom Prewitt, artistic director for WSC Avant Bard. His company has performed all-female Shakespeare, all-nude Shakespeare and Shakespeare in Klingon.

Another unusual approach? Wordless Shakespeare.

“It was risky. But I knew Washingtonians knew the Shakespeare stories,” says Synetic Theater’s Paata Tsikurishvili, who first attempted this physical style of storytelling with “Hamlet … The Rest is Silence” in 2002, and has turned the concept into an ongoing series.

The Shakespearean saturation is particularly gratifying to Michael Kahn, who came to Washington in 1986 to helm the theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Because of rising deficits, the library’s trustees were considering dissolving the performance wing of the organization.

Under Kahn’s guidance, however, Shakespeare became a hot ticket. In 1992, Kahn’s Shakespeare Theatre Company broke off from the Folger and relocated to a larger space downtown. (So you can also credit Shakespeare with some of the city’s urban renewal, Kahn notes.)

The Shakespeare Theatre Company now operates two downtown theaters, the Folger is back in show business, and STC’s annual Free For All continues to mint new Shakespeare fans.

“It’s difficult to read [Shakespeare] at home by yourself. He wrote it to be acted,” Kahn says. “Seeing it live, you get caught up in it. That’s the best way to encounter Shakespeare.”

And the best place? Well, that’s obvious.

A version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” featuring puppets is playing at the Kennedy Center this weekend. (Simon Annand) A version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” featuring puppets is playing at the Kennedy Center this weekend. (Simon Annand)

The Bard Played On

Want to see some Shakespeare? There’s plenty to choose from:

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
Sunday, kennedy-center.org
The folks behind “War Horse” lend their puppetry skills to the Bard’s comedy. The weekend engagement is part of the World Stages: International Theater Festival 2014.

‘Hamlet … the Rest is Silence’
through April 6, synetictheater.org
Synetic Theater launched its wordless Shakespeare series with this rendition of Hamlet in 2002. To celebrate giving 10 Shakespeare shows the silent treatment, the company is reviving its original hit.

‘Twelfth Night’
through April 6, centerstage.org
Baltimore audiences can catch Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy at Center Stage —  with a cast featuring several Broadway and West End veteran performers.

‘Hamlet’
through April 13, annapolisshakespeare.org
Founded in 2010, the Annapolis Shakespeare Company mounts several productions a year. Later this season, audiences can enjoy “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “The Tempest.”

‘Henry IV’
Part I: Tuesday-June 7; Part II: April 1-June 8; shakespeare-theatre.org
Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn is directing these two shows in repertory. Learn more about the productions at free events throughout their runs, including “Page and Stage” (April 6, 5-6 p.m.), which will feature the artistic team and local scholars, and “Bookends” (April 9 for Part I, April 16 for Part II), pre- and post-show discussions.

‘Shakespeare in The Burg’
April 4-6, shakespeareintheburg.com
Performances of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Henry IV, Part I” are part of this 450th birthday bash planned in Middleburg, Va. The weekend’s events also include a playwright competition, acting workshops and Shakespeare-themed restaurant menus.

‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’
April 17-May 25, folger.edu
New York’s Fiasco Theater takes to the Folger’s Elizabethan stage for this take on a work thought to be Shakespeare’s first play. There’s a pay-what-you-can performance on April 22 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available one hour before, cash only.

Queen Elizabeth cuts the cake at last year's birthday party for the Bard. (Lloyd Wolff) Queen Elizabeth cuts the cake at last year’s birthday party for the Bard. (Lloyd Wolff)

Happy Birthday, Will!

The Folger Shakespeare Library (201 E. Capitol St. SE, folger.edu) was dedicated on April 23, 1932 — Shakespeare’s 368th birthday. The library has been marking the occasion every year since. For the big 4-5-0, there are impressive (and free!) plans afoot. These activities kick off a multiyear celebration leading up to 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Several mega projects are in the works, including a plan to bring a First Folio to all 50 states.

Shakespeare’s the Thing: Celebrating 450 Years of Shakespeare
through June 15
This exhibit curated by Georgianna Ziegler showcases items from the collection that represent four centuries of “Bardolatry.” See Salvador Dali’s costume designs for a 1948 production of “As You Like It,” a bookcase that’s a miniaturized version of the Shakespeare “temple” located at an 18th–century actor’s house and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Barbie.

Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture
April 3, 7:30 p.m.
University of York professor Brian Cummings tackles the problems associated with writing a biography of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House
April 6, noon-4 p.m.
The whole family is welcome at this festival featuring stage combat workshops, Elizabethan crafts, jugglers, musical performances, tours of the historic reading rooms and birthday cake for all. Stephen Grant will also be speaking about his new Folger biography.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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