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Shakespeare 2007: Arts Groups Plan Ambitious Citywide Festival

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 2, 2005

William Shakespeare will take over the nation's capital in 2007 as the Kennedy Center spearheads a six-month, citywide festival to be called "Shakespeare in Washington."

The festival, announced yesterday at the Folger Shakespeare Library, is the brainchild of Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser and will be curated by Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn.

The programming, which Kaiser and Kahn first discussed two years ago, will have a prismatic effect as Shakespeare gets filtered across artistic disciplines. Major theater, opera and dance companies will take part, as will choral groups and museums.

In an interview Tuesday at his Kennedy Center office, Kaiser said, "It is truly an amazing array of arts organizations, each looking at Shakespeare from their particular perspective."

Kahn, speaking Tuesday from New York, said, "My job really now will be to get these institutions to put events together that will connect."

"Shakespeare in Washington" is scheduled to begin in January 2007 and continue through June of that year. Although not all of the programming is certain -- and significant changes have been made even this week -- a number of major players are in place. At the Kennedy Center, the Kirov Ballet of the Mariinsky Theatre will present its legendary 1940 production of "Romeo and Juliet," and the Kirov Opera will offer Verdi's "Falstaff."

The Washington National Opera will present Verdi's "Macbeth," starring Lado Ataneli and Paoletta Marrocu as the murderous couple. The Royal Shakespeare Company -- a regular tenant of the Kennedy Center, as are the Kirov and the Washington National Opera -- will conclude its current five-year contract with the center by bringing a show (or shows) yet to be announced.

At the Shakespeare Theatre, recent Helen Hayes Award winner Geraint Wyn Davies will reunite with director Kahn to star in "Richard III," which will be followed by the company's first production of "Cymbeline." Kahn also will direct an all-male production of "As You Like It."

"I've been thinking about it for a while," he said.

The festival will take pains to avoid duplicate programming -- no dueling performances of "Richard III" from the Shakespeare Theatre and the RSC, for example -- but the Kennedy Center will offer its own "As You Like It," a family-friendly adaptation as part of its Imagination Celebration. That will be staged in what will by then be known as the Family Theater, formerly the American Film Institute's theater.

The AFI, now at the Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, intends to show an array of less straightforward Shakespearean movies, and the Library of Congress is also likely to include films in its exhibit. Kahn says he is even considering a Maori film version of "The Merchant of Venice."

The Folger Shakespeare Library, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2007, announced that it will produce a country musical called "Lone Star Love, or The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas," with music by the Red Clay Ramblers. The show has been in development for almost 30 years but was recently produced off-Broadway. The Folger Library will also present an exhibit called "Shakespeare in American Life."

A number of museums will be involved in "Shakespeare in Washington," including the National Building Museum, which is planning to commission designers to freely imagine designs and stages -- "things that might not ever get built," says executive director Chase W. Rynd. The museum also hopes to build two stages on its grounds -- one indoor and one outdoor, with programming perhaps coming from the Shakespeare Theatre Academy for Classical Acting at George Washington University, according to Rynd.

Kahn will team up with the National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra for Duke Ellington's musical suite "Such Sweet Thunder," which Kahn will direct.

"We'll intersperse scenes and some spoken words with the music and try to create a real theatrical event out of it," Kahn said. "It's a beautiful score; it's been recorded, but most people don't know it. I didn't really know it until it was brought to me."

As things stand, the Kennedy Center won't actually produce anything -- except whatever related work the National Symphony Orchestra chooses. That marks a change from the center's Stephen Sondheim and Tennessee Williams celebrations and the recent 1940s festival.

"Our role here is purely coordinating," Kaiser said. "Each organization is responsible for its own project, financially and otherwise. What we are doing is coordinating it, and coordinating the marketing -- getting press, and getting people to know about this outside of Washington."

The Kennedy Center already has launched a Web site that will serve as a clearinghouse of information about schedules and tickets, Web links and where to find the events. Most of the productions will be in the obvious places; the Shakespeare Theatre shows will be at the Shakespeare Theatre, for example. But although the Washington Ballet knows what it intends to do -- a program of seven new works by seven choreographers on Shakespearean themes as the latest in its "7 x 7" series -- it does not know where it will perform.

Signature Theatre intends to be in its new building in Shirlington by 2007 and will present a cabaret called "Singing Shakespeare," featuring songs from musicals inspired by the Bard. More for people who like their Shakespeare sung: The Master Chorale of Washington will perform selected opera choruses collectively titled "Shakespeare in Opera." The Washington Concert Opera, the Washington Chorus and the Vocal Arts Society all plan to participate in the festival, as does the Washington Performing Arts Society, though none of those organizations announced specific programs yesterday.

Kahn and Kaiser both asserted that the abundance of yearly Shakespeare programming makes Washington a natural for this kind of festival. "Isn't he the most performed playwright in town?" Kahn asked rhetorically. "Probably outside of London, you can't say that" about another city.

Said Kaiser, "We're hoping that it will be not just for Washington audiences . . . that this will be substantial enough that people will feel compelled to come to Washington from around the country and around the world, as they did for Sondheim."

Big as it is, the festival won't make a point of presenting the entire Shakespearean canon. Kaiser said: "If you were going to touch it all, so much of it would have to be plays, because a lot of the plays have never been turned into something else. There was no goal here to be encyclopedic."

Kaiser and Kahn agreed that their larger ambition is to transcend artistic boundaries, to explore the plays and their myriad adaptations in different formats and different languages while hopefully inspiring audiences -- which tend to self-segregate rather rigidly -- to try something new. Kahn hopes to build incentives into the marketing, offering theater discounts to people who buy ballet tickets, for example.

"The goal," Kaiser said, "is to allow people to experience Shakespeare from so many different formats, in so many different art forms -- the symphonic music, the choral music, the chamber music, the plays, the ballets, the operas, the visual arts, Broadway stuff. That's the point of the festival."

Other announced performers range from jazz musicians Cleo Laine and John Dankworth at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall to the Tiny Ninja Theater -- which uses small plastic ninja figures to perform plays -- at the center's free Millennium Stage. Kahn also intends to include plenty of educational events and symposiums.

Kahn said: "I don't think that this list is the end of it. I hope . . . that people will start calling and say, 'Gee, I'd like to do this, too.' "

Whether the list will ultimately include smaller organizations such as the non-Equity Washington Shakespeare Company is unclear. Kaiser and Kahn both said this week that 2007 seemed a bit far in the future for the WSC to be making plans, and Kahn said, "I guess we haven't put in any non-Equity companies at all." But WSC Artistic Director Christopher Henley said yesterday that the entire festival was news to him.

The programming is still in such flux that Kahn, when asked earlier this week about a high-tech "The Tempest" that the Kennedy Center will bring into the Terrace Theater from Quebec, replied, "I don't know about that." He added with a laugh, "I'll know it all eventually."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company