Boldly going where the Bard is beloved
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Mar. 2, 2012
For such a blustery afternoon, Dupont Circle was curiously crowded at 1 p.m. on a recent Saturday. But in fact, the local lollygaggers were awaiting a spectacle.
"Where are the Klingons?" one woman wondered aloud to her companion, while another restless "Star Trek" fan commented, "When you're the fiercest warriors in the galaxy, you don't worry about arriving on time."
As if on cue, two caped and hirsute men with outspoken foreheads strode into Dupont Circle for WSC Avant Bard's open casting call for its second "Shakespeare in Klingon" fundraiser. The inaugural show in the fall of 2010 earned an unprecedented amount of publicity for the offbeat troupe formerly known as Washington Shakespeare Company.
"You've got to be surprised when you get a call from the BBC saying they read about it and want to film it," says Christopher Henley, WSC's artistic director. "It's not what you expect when you plan your little fundraiser in D.C."
That first show, performed with erstwhile USS Enterprise helmsman George Takei, consisted of selections from "Hamlet" and "As You Like It." The scenes were performed in English and Klingon, a language created by WSC board president and linguist Marc Okrand. The novelty resulted in the group's most successful fundraiser, so it made sense to give the shtick another go. But retread material is not the stock-in-trade of WSC, a company known for "Macbeth" in the nude and a zombie-inhabited "Richard III."
"We didn't want to become the Shakespeare in Klingon Company," Henley says.
This year, the Kronos-conceived portion will be more of a side dish. A soliloquy from "Hamlet" performed in Klingon will accompany a new work by local playwright Allyson Currin with the "Trek"-inspired title "The Wrath of (Michael) Kahn." Local theater fans should be intrigued to find that the show actually stars the aforementioned Kahn, the high-profile artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
The plot follows a slightly complicated bit of local theater lore that dates to July 1986, when a newly appointed Kahn was preparing to take over the company (then located at Folger Theatre). In an interview with The Washington Post, Kahn was asked about hiring talent from outside Washington. His response: "If the best actor lives in Seattle or the best director in New York, that's who should be doing it. This place is called the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger - not the Washington Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger." Little did Kahn know that his words would create an uproar among local actors.
"He didn't mean anything competitive or adversarial about it, but it was kind of taken that way," Henley says.
Kahn's quote became the inspiration for Washington Shakespeare Company's name (which was eventually changed for a number of reasons, including the inherent confusion of having both a Shakespeare Theatre Company and a Washington Shakespeare Company).
"So we decided to take that incident and shared past and have a little fun with it," Henley says.
The result is a riff on "It's a Wonderful Life," in which Kahn looks back and regrets having uttered those words. But he ultimately learns that the interview led to unexpectedly positive outcomes.
"And we look back and say, 'Well, if you hadn't said that, there would be no Washington Shakespeare Company, and all of these people would have ended up having horrible lives,' " Henley says with a laugh. The show also features artistic directors from other local troupes, including Kathleen Akerley of Longacre Lea, Michael Dove of Forum Theatre and Theatre Alliance's Colin Hovde. WSC alums, including Delaney Williams (known for recurring roles on "The Wire" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"), will also return.
In other words, this is a show that might appeal to local theater nerds as much as it will to Vulcan salute-flashing Trekkers. Strange, yes, but Henley sees an audience for this commingling of high art and pop culture.
"It's kind of weird," he admits. "But who would have thought of chocolate and peanut butter in the same thing? And everyone's like, 'Hmm. That's really interesting.' "