Shakespeare and the City, at a New Stage

The 775-seat Harman's soaring glass facade stands in marked contrast to the cavelike feeling at the Lansburgh, the company's older, smaller Seventh Street space, which will remain in use.
The 775-seat Harman's soaring glass facade stands in marked contrast to the cavelike feeling at the Lansburgh, the company's older, smaller Seventh Street space, which will remain in use. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sixth Street near Verizon Center is one of those curious Washington dead spaces. Only a block away, on the redeveloped Seventh Street NW, there is teeming nightlife, a forest of signs and logos and other enticements to eat, drink and shop. It is a suburbanite's fantasy of urban life -- brand names and bright lights -- but love it or hate it, there is bustle there.

Sixth Street, however, remains mostly bleak and empty. Which makes the presence of the new Sidney Harman Hall, the $89 million expansion space for Shakespeare Theatre Company that recently opened, a welcome sight.

Approached at night, as the theater crowd is gathering on the street and moving about the glass-fronted lobby, the building is a handsome presence. And with its F Street address close to the corner of Sixth Street, it may very well extend the nearby liveliness into the dead zone.

The virtues of the new 775-seat theater, designed by the Canadian firm Diamond and Schmitt Architects, are best seen in contrast to the smaller, 451-seat Lansburgh Theatre, where the company has been performing for years. Entry to the Lansburgh feels cavelike. Pass through a modest door, avert your eyes from the wretched statue of King Lear by J. Seward Johnson, proceed down a windowless hall and enjoy the splendor of an awkwardly laid out and smallish lobby (also windowless).

It feels subterranean and crowded. At intermission, the bathroom traffic creates little snakes of impatient people threading through the thronging coffee drinkers, wine sippers and idle chatterers parsing the events of Act 1. You are in constant peril of spilling on a Supreme Court justice -- or worse, running into that certain someone you really didn't want to run into.

The Shakespeare Theatre will continue to perform in the Lansburgh, but the real attraction now is the swanky Harman Hall, a short walk from the older space. Architecturally, the theater is devoid of new ideas. But the architects have used good materials -- glass, wood and metal -- and sometimes materials are all it takes to make people comfortable.

The glass facade is hardly the first one in Washington, but in a city of shallow canyons of dull masonry -- call it the K Street Look, in which political influence is kept decorously out of sight behind bland building fronts -- a little glass is always welcome.

Rising five floors from the street and jutting out above the sidewalk, the glass walls reveal two aluminum-clad columns that support the office tower above the theater. They also put the audience on display, inviting Washingtonians to think of themselves -- dare one say it? -- as potentially glamorous people, worth being seen.

If entry to the Lansburgh is a short, dark journey into a world apart, entry to the Harman suggests that the theatrical space is both a part of the city and elevated over it. The audience participates in the urban spectacle and, with lobbies located on the second and third levels, they look down on it, too. The lobby bars tend to draw the crowd out into the display-case space closest to the street. From there, if you're not inclined to vertigo, you can gaze not just upon the loveliness of Verizon Center but down F Street in both directions. The F Street views are rewarding, and you feel above the fray, a nice feeling in a city that hasn't always had a lot of fray to feel above.

Glass rewards those inside a building with views. But from the outside it is all about envy and desire and appetite -- a material for storefronts and elegant houses, for showing off goods. It is a status symbol and a cliche in contemporary architecture -- but its magical ability to transform both those inside and outside it continues undiminished.

In today's security-mad world, the transparency of glass has taken on new meaning, a much-needed riposte to the bureaucrats and consultants who would return us to the days of moats and dungeons. A terrorist on the street could do some serious damage to Harman Hall and its patrons at intermission. No one wishes for such a thing, but it is refreshing to see architecture that is unafraid of the random dangers of urban life in the 21st century.

The theater world -- playwrights, directors, actors and audiences -- should be open, exposed and fearless. And the architecture of theater should be a challenge to the ugly, timorous architecture of government.

It's sad to report, therefore, that one of the interior flaws of the building is a new patrons' lounge, a space apart reserved for donors to the Shakespeare Theatre, where they can mingle among their well-moneyed selves apart from hoi polloi. Yes, while there was always a risk of sloshing chardonnay on Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Lansburgh, that was part of the charm of it as well. The lobby forced communion upon people of all classes, just as Shakespeare's Globe Theatre intermingled bumptious and nut-chewing groundlings with rakish aristocrats.

The new theater, like almost every new entertainment space built today, is hierarchical. The demand to maximize revenue, whether through selling skyboxes or souvenirs and servicing the thirst and hunger of the crowd, or through soliciting donations in the nonprofit world, means that a fully "functional" entertainment space must do much more than present hockey or "Hamlet."

The side effects of this trend are mixed. It's good to have a little gift shop and bookstore on the ground level, where everyone can visit. And the bars seem to run more efficiently than at the old space. But one hopes that the patrons' lounge is a failure, that the lure of the real theater crowd in the front of the hall attracts the donating crowd out into the open and democratic front lobbies. Perhaps then the lounge could be converted into gallery or exhibition space.

As for the interior of the theater, it's dark. Slats of deep-brown cherry wood run horizontally along the interior of the performance space, which has an orchestra level and a balcony, and good views throughout. The space is designed to be configured in multiple shapes and used for different kinds of events, including musical performances and dance. The acoustics, which can be adjusted with hidden curtains, are better from the orchestra level than the balcony, where actors not directly facing the audience were less audible.

Final judgment on the theater as architecture will, in some ways, depend on how well it serves the Shakespeare Theatre Company as it expands. There is something that must be said, and it isn't pleasant: The new Harman Hall creates a certain dissonance between the professionalism of the physical space and the product one sees when the lights go down. There are too many nights each year when what happens at the Shakespeare is just average and often predictable: yet another Shakespeare play set in some generically militarist land, with vaguely fascist-looking costumes and a very uneven cast hammering every last little sexual innuendo into the ground. Over the years, the audience has grown more sophisticated than the direction.

This new theater is a major investment, a sign of the company's priorities as it begins to present expanded seasons with multiple shows running in two separate spaces. But, as the Bard says, the play's the thing, and no amount of window dressing will hide that if the company can't break out of certain artistic ruts. So the new Harman Hall isn't just a building, it's a challenge. And audiences, if they care deeply about theater, must hold the company to it.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company