'Twelfth Night': Bard Fest's Hot And Happy Ticket

(Photos By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007

The most startling line on the opening night of the Shakespeare in Washington festival was the one that snaked all the way around the Kennedy Center.

People began queuing four hours before the 6 p.m. reading Saturday of "Twelfth Night," the first of the 500 dance, theater and musical performances that will form the core of the six-month festival exploring Washington's evergreen fascination with the Bard.

The line was so long, according to the institution, that by the start of the show, all 2,400-plus seats in the Concert Hall had been filled -- and 2,000 would-be attendees had to be turned away. (Even Edward Albee, in town for the start of a national tour of a revival of his "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," had to scramble for a seat.)

Permit this to sink in: Two thousand people turned away not from a date with some teeny-bopper flavor-of-the-nanosecond, but a 400-year-old classical comedy! Yes, admission was free and the weather splendid for a long box office vigil. Still, all these people lining up for a reading of Shakespeare suggests something reassuringly affirmative about the drawing power of the playwright -- and the craving for the richness of great spoken poetry that manages to persist despite the coarseness of our culture.

Kicking off this ambitious, gigantic festival with a humble reading might have amounted to what marketing people call a "soft launch." The public's embrace, however, and the jaunty "Twelfth Night" assembled by director Michael Kahn elevated the opening to something of broader impact. As part of this inaugural spirit, the Kennedy Center recruited the city's newly installed mayor, Adrian Fenty, as introductory speaker. Stopping by in his tux on his way to his own inaugural gala, Fenty struck a note of youthful brio. Recalling that while in high school two decades ago he took a course at Folger Shakespeare Library, Fenty observed that the importance of the arts has long been understated in this city, and that he hoped the festival might "dispense with the notion that we're a government town."

"I feel it's my duty to proclaim something," he added wryly, producing a document setting aside the first six months of 2007 in honor of the festival. "This is the first proclamation bearing my signature," he said, and began to read, jokingly: "As mayor of the District of Columbia for a couple of days . . ."

Conceived by Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser, the festival is a showcase for a city's imaginative will. It draws on a spectrum of 60 arts organizations -- from Theater J to the Washington Ballet, the Smithsonian to the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange -- as a way of showcasing both the artistry of Shakespeare and the artists inspired by his work. Companies from around the country and the world are participating as well.

Some of the offerings in January include the Kirov Opera's production of Verdi's "Falstaff," American Ballet Theatre's "Othello," Synetic Theater's wordless "Macbeth," a "Richard III" at Shakespeare Theatre Company and a "King Lear" at Folger Theatre, as well as an architectural exhibition of Shakespeare theaters of the future at the National Building Museum.

The one-time-only reading of "Twelfth Night" took place, aptly enough, on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. Seated on the Concert Hall stage in a crescent of chairs were the 19 actors, plus four accompanists from the Renaissance musical ensemble Hesperus. The play's subtitle, "Or What You Will," was taken to mean "casual": Actors in street clothes read their parts from scripts arranged on music stands. The cast, put together by Kahn and David Muse, his associate director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, mingled locally well-known classical actors -- David Sabin as Toby Belch; Floyd King as Andrew Aguecheek; Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Maria -- with some out-of-town notables, such as Veanne Cox as Olivia and Bronson Pinchot, playing Malvolio.

Into the mix, too, were added actors from other area theater companies, such as Signature Theatre, Washington Shakespeare Company, Rorschach Theatre and Woolly Mammoth Theatre, all of which are putting on plays as part of the festival.

With almost no rehearsal and little theatrical artifice -- the actors' binders, for instance, stood in for swords -- the reading benefited from an audience's appreciation of the impromptu. Fortunately, many of the actors spoke Shakespeare with aplomb, and some filled out parts with panache. (In terms of the sheer number of crowd-pleasing roles, "Twelfth Night" may be Shakespeare's most generous comedy.) Sabin, King and Dorn formed a savory triumvirate as the play's low-character sots, fops and plotters. Drew Eshelman colored his Feste, the jester, in pleasingly mellow comic hues. Though Pinchot seemed a bit shakier at times with the verse, he showed the potential to be a first-rate Shakespearean clown. His literal uncovering of Malvolio's romantic self-delusions gave the evening a crude if priceless moment of physical comedy.

The story's confused romancers -- Cox's Olivia, Christopher Innvar's Orsino, Will Gartshore's Sebastian and Jennifer Dundas's Viola -- were becoming portrayals, Dundas's enunciation of Viola's "willow cabin" speech being especially mellifluous.

It was no surprise, though, that the play's surface comedy, the identity mix-ups and the elaborate practical joke played on Malvolio came across on this occasion a bit more clearly than the subtler, darker strains in the text.

The evening accomplished what a reading should: It made you want to see this cast in a fully staged "Twelfth Night" played to the hilt. (Which, unfortunately, is not in the cards.) If, however, Shakespeare in Washington were to regularly offer anything on the order of the reaction Saturday night, after Pinchot dropped Malvolio's pants, this could be a festival of inordinate surprise.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company