A (shopworn) comedy tonight: Classical theaters are increasingly playing it safe


Michael Benz, Dickon Tyrrell, Peter Bray, Miranda Foster and Matthew Romain in Shakespeare’s Globe production of ‘Hamlet,’ playing at Folger Theatre. (Jeff Malet)
November 15, 2013

Back in the good old days — well, 2005, anyway — the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington’s premier classical theater, mounted a fine holiday production. Lo and behold, it was by Shakespeare: the tricky, often giddy but also often mishandled “The Comedy of Errors.”

This year, the company is also mounting a holiday production, and it is by Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

Are you getting a which-of-these-things-doesn’t-belong kind of vibe?

Up in Stratford, Ontario, home to one of the great classical companies in North America, the Stratford Festival, the big hit of 2013 was by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock: “Fiddler on the Roof.” At the highly esteemed Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the major offering over the summer was the brand-heavy Broadway show from 2008, “Shrek, the Musical.”

Clearly, in some months of the theater calendar, the boundaries of “classical” are being redrawn. In others, companies seem to be resorting to paths of least resistance, filling out seasons with “safe” selections. At the Shakespeare, for example, the six 2013-14 main offerings include both Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” — picks qualifying in upper-echelon theater circles as no-brainers. Folger Theatre, meanwhile, currently has on the boards “Romeo and Juliet,” its second staging of the tragedy in eight years, and one running concurrently with a lackluster Broadway revival with Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad. Next up at Folger is a history play needing little introduction, either: “Richard III.”

When a company of Tony-winning Shakespeare Theatre’s caliber goes for the most obvious entries in the catalogue, and others prop up their seasons with “classic” musicals or the Shakespearean war horses — “Midsummers” and “Macbeths,” from California Shakespeare Theater all the way to Broadway — some kind of recession of inspiration seems to be revealing itself. Can it be that classical companies and the more enlightened commercial producers from coast to coast are all coming up simultaneously with brilliant new concepts and fabulous new ways to present the same batches of famous plays you read in freshman English and the musicals you learned by listening to old cast albums?

Here’s what I think might be going on: companies and producers are running scared. They’re falling back on the dictates of mainstream marketing, rather than the quirkier channels of their own intuition and taste, to select shows and sell seasons. And I, for one, am scared for them. With what feels like increasingly rare exceptions, audiences are being shuffled into ticket queues for old pieces that theater pros think we want to see, rather than finding the offbeat projects that they think we need to see.

Set aside the public for a minute — and for goodness sake, forget the jaded critics: Do even the people working at classical theaters get excited when it’s not just the old, it’s also the same-old, same-old? Michael Kahn, Shakespeare Theatre’s longtime artistic director and a devotee of mounting obscure works of yore, acknowledged a certain dulling nod to practicality, when asked about the company’s season. (In addition to “A Funny Thing,” and the Wilde and Coward plays, it includes the recently concluded “Measure for Measure” and the two parts of “Henry IV.”)

“The meaning of it is to balance,” Kahn said, “so that I can do ‘Wallenstein.’ ” He’s referring to the rarely performed play from 1798 by Friedrich Schiller that Kahn staged last season, in a new version by former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky. That the company showed Washington the dramatic possibilities with Schiller, in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” was outstanding. But what is it showing with a revival of “Forum,” a piece audiences are more likely to come across — and have — at musicals-intensive organizations such as Arlington’s Signature Theatre?

“I do know that musicals do bring in an audience, and that’s important these days,” Kahn said. “To begin to bring in new audiences that haven’t been to the theater and get them to move into the classics.”

It is common practice across the spectrum of the performing arts to augment the menu with chestnuts. The New York City Ballet, after all, cycles in its popular “The Nutcracker” every Christmas. The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, a bastion of excellence, is among the seemingly countless regional theaters (including Ford’s Theatre) that have found “A Christmas Carol” a renewable box office resource. The emerging question for classical theaters, though, seems to be, what really constitutes “balance” in a year’s work? And are segues into fare such as “Forum,” or frequent forays into what you might call building-block Shakespeare, such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet,” better guarantors of audience loyalty? If so, how many “Forums” must you stage to get newcomers to think, “Now for some iambic pentameter!”?

It might be that the costs of running big classical institutions mandate a vigilant — indeed sometimes wearying — eye on “balance.” Antoni Cimolino, artistic director at Stratford, which every April to October produces a dozen works, a majority of them classics and a third of them by Shakespeare, says he’s conscious of a range of ticket buyers, some with highly sophisticated sensibilities and others embryonic, that must be accommodated.

“Let me explain my hell,” said Cimolino, who this past summer directed a splendid “Mary Stuart” by Schiller, which sold well running alongside the boffo “Fiddler.” “So there are the big, big titles. One third of the audience to a major title will be newcomers, so it’s an entry point. And there others who will come and say, ‘Not another “Midsummer Night’s Dream”!’ For him, it’s making room for “the middle titles” in Shakespeare that becomes the great challenge — and the results are often a surprise to audiences. “The ‘Cymbelines,’ the ‘Measure for Measures’: These are not the premier Shakespeare titles. They are generally works of genius that people haven’t savored enough,” he said.

A school of thought has it that the list of works people have no interest in savoring is growing, and that as a practical consideration, the canon of producible classical works is shrinking. Although Folger, like the Shakespeare Theatre, dips from time to time into a vast pool of dramatists whose plays are virtually never seen — de Marivaux and Susanna Centilivre and Garrick and Colman — the company sticks mostly to a Shakespeare diet.

Janet Griffin, Folger’s veteran artistic producer, often looks for innovation inside conventional packaging: An illusion-filled “Macbeth,” directed by the magician Teller and Aaron Posner, comes to mind, as does a brisk, eight-actor “Hamlet” imported last year from Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

As she noted, though, “we’re having our best seasons when we program only Shakespeare.” And even within the Bard’s canon, there are limitations on what can usefully be produced. In her estimation, there are 17 plays of Shakespeare “that one would pin a season on.”

Perhaps it will be left to smaller companies to gobble up the lesser titles: D.C.’s Taffety Punk Theatre Company has just finished a run of an all-female version of “Titus Andronicus,” and WSC Avant Bard is in the midst of reviving “King John.” Both had been mounted some years ago by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. One hopes that they might show up on the roster there again.

In the meantime, you can find companies with classical traditions that are not towing a conventional line. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey advertises a six-play lineup on its main stage in Madison that has featured for 2013 Thornton Wilder’s oft-seen “Our Town,” but, in addition, Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” “The Playboy of the Western World,” by John Millington Synge; Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels” and Robert Sherwood’s “Tovarich.” The tune being hummed in Jersey does not seem to begin, “Something familiar.”

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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