On May 7, 98 years ago, the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat. More than 1,300 passengers were killed, at least 130 of whom were American. The Lusitania sank in less than 20 minutes.
Why did the ship sink so fast? The Titanic, as you probably remember from the interminable film, took hours to drop to the Atlantic’s icy bottom. Some believe the Lusitania was smuggling contraband ammunitions on its trek from New York to Liverpool. There’s the conspiracy angle, too — that the Brits sank the ship, hoping to expedite America’s entry into World War I. But official findings determined something more cruel than collusive: that the ship was unarmed and was torpedoed with the intent “of destroying human lives,” according to Lord Mersey (a.k.a. John Bigham), who presided over the investigation.
Not the most romantic place to set one of Shakespeare’s more romantic plays, but it’s this tragedy that “Twelfth Night” director Robert Richmond selected as the backdrop for the upcoming production at Folger Theatre. The sinking of the Lusitania is repurposed as the shipwreck that lands Viola on the Illyrian coast — or, in Richmond’s iteration, the southern coast of Ireland.
“We’re at a place with that ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ vibe,” Richmond said. He and his team wanted to set the play in a period “that held the play up, morally, socially and status-wise,” he said. “Because it’s all about the topsy-turviness of the class structure.”
“Twelfth Night,” you may recall, was the basis for the Amanda-Bynes-at-her-best/early Channing Tatum cinematic masterpiece, “She’s the Man.” For some strange reason, Richmond did not cite this film as an inspiration, though he did discuss parallels between the comedy and one much-beloved BBC drama, given that “Olivia, a high-class lady . . . falls in love with a servant, which reminds me of [Sybil, R.I.P.] on ‘Downton Abbey’ who eventually marries the chauffeur.”
The creative team behind “Twelfth Night” is the same group that brought you “Henry V,” which, when it ended its run in March, was the best-selling production in Folger’s history.
They cast and designed “Henry V” and “Twelfth Night” simultaneously. “We knew that if ‘Henry V’ was masculine, full of war and all of those things, that this had to be, probably, the other side of the coin,” said Richmond. “If one was about people’s reactions and suffering through war, this is about people suffering and reacting to love.”
“When you first encounter the play,” he added, “you go, everybody is just falling in love all the time. Actually, they’re not. They’re motivated for all sorts of reasons: Some are social-climbing, some are doing it for financial gain, some are feeling not able to fully express themselves because society doesn’t allow them to have those kinds of relationships. There are definitely strong, modern and important things that are being talked about here.”
While “Henry V” employed a winking theater device — that “Pippin”-style thing wherein the players are clearly actors pretending to be at least one, but usually multiple, characters — “Twelfth Night” “is more magical realism,” Richmond said. Given the intimacy of the Folger’s space, it’s tricky to pull off: “Every detail has to be considered.”
Through June 9, 201 East Capitol St. SE, www.folger.edu, 202-544-7077.
“We really value a sense of visual spectacle,” said Allison Arkell Stockman, Constellation Theatre’s founding artistic director, who is helming the world-premiere production of “Gilgamesh.” “So we’re not going minimalist.”
Good thing, too, because “Gilgamesh” isn’t exactly the type of story that makes you think small-scale, simple design. The epic tale of this half-man, half-god’s journey “is like the oldest written human story,” Stockman said. “It dates back to 2100 BCE and it’s hugely epic in scope. It contains all of these fantastical creatures, Mesopotamian gods. . . . In a lot of ways, it feels like ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Star Wars.’ ”
After tackling “Arabian Nights” and last season’s “Metamorphoses,” Stockman felt “emboldened” to take on this ancient saga. “If we could solve the problems of [those] epic journeys, then we’ll be bold and approach this one as well,” she said. “Doing ‘Metamorphoses’ last year, that’s made us braver — nothing seems as hard as that.”
“This size of the story is the most ambitious one we’ve ever done,” she said.
Live music is integrated throughout the production. When Stockman found “Gilgamesh,” she was on the lookout for a show that would feature percussionist Tom Teasley, a Helen Hayes Award winner. “He’s pulling rhythms from Africa, the Middle East, and also infusing them with some American rhythms, some bluesy types of sounds as well,” Stockman said.
Despite Constellation’s desire to be as adventurous as possible, some elaborate plans for the set had to be scrapped. “We were going to cover the whole floor with sand,” Stockman said. “But it was going to be expensive to get the number of tons of sand that we needed — because we needed safe, synthetic sand — and the cost to remove sand from the building was more expensive than getting the sand in the first place.
Thursday to June 2, 1835 14th St. NW, www.constellationtheatre.org, 202-204-7741.