It's Long Before Opening Night. Enter, the Director.

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008

Washingtonians who have seen Michael Kahn's plays -- more than 40 of them over 20 years -- have come to appreciate his signature. Without being able to articulate his style, perhaps, they have come to expect a certain familiarity, the distinct confidence that they are in familiar, reliable hands.

But few have had the opportunity to see how Kahn -- director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company -- conveys his vision to cast and crew during those crucial weeks before a production. What goes on in the mind of a director as he steers another production into reality? What is Kahn like behind the curtain?

Which is why -- one weekday morning in February -- we find ourselves huddling with carpenters, costume stitchers, volunteers, set designers and, of course, actors to listen to Kahn's opening remarks, this as everyone prepares to rehearse forthcoming productions of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and "Antony and Cleopatra." Many of these cast members, including Andrew Long -- who plays Antony in both plays -- will appear in both productions, which are now running in repertory.

It's something of an insider thrill to watch as the 65-year-old director -- whose alert gaze, slightly downturned head and sotto voce growl suggest a sophisticated lion -- asks everyone to introduce themselves.

Kahn watches with a look of concentrated benevolence as the gathered -- more than 200 in number -- introduce themselves in ways that could only work in a context like this: "Aubrey Deeker, Octavius" and "Kryztov Lindquist, Soothsayer."

After that, there is an enlightening lecture from company dramaturge Akiva Fox, who provides historical context for both plays, followed by "Julius Caesar" director David Muse (also the Shakespeare Theatre Company's associate artistic director), who calls Kahn "my inspiration and the person who's driven me the most crazy over the years."

"I have no idea why I drive you crazy," Kahn says, as if slightly taken aback. "But if I don't know, it's better."

He takes the floor and expounds at length about his attraction to the elements and themes of "Antony and Cleopatra." He admires its endless ambiguity and duality, he says. It's a celebration, for instance, of Rome's political organization, might and intellectual bearing, yet also an appreciation for Egypt's ethos of relaxation, anti-intellectual impulse and passion.

He also loves that "Antony" is a play of big ideas with some of Shakespeare's finest poetry. It's also an evocation of human failings, he continues, in which "the two greatest celebrities in the world at that time" confront their weaknesses, their humanity. What truly makes the play a tragedy, he sums up, is that "we have to destroy the two most charismatic characters Shakespeare ever created."

As Kahn speaks in his soft, gravelly tone, he caresses his tanned, balding dome, a personal ritual almost akin to the contemplative manner of Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now." And the company cranes forward, trying to hear him above the hum of a slide projector -- the one that will show them the set design and the costumes.

Now comes the gentle warning.

They do not have the luxury of a 20-week rehearsal schedule that two plays would normally require, says Kahn, so they will have to "proceed with a certain alacrity" that will require "a lot of discipline from the cast."

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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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