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

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."

The whistle is blown.

From this point on, Kahn says later, everything will proceed organically, including his own evolving conception of the play.

"I can't talk about the play much on the first day because it reveals itself to me in a way that is much more particular than any overarching vision I have." His ideas, he continues, "get tested in rehearsal."

And over the next two months, that's precisely what happens.

The long slog of rehearsals begins with the cast's first read-through -- seated around tables at the company's Capitol Hill rehearsal space -- and ends with the final tech rehearsal a few days before the opening. And during that period, Kahn allows a reporter to observe and check in with him, by telephone or at his office in the Shakespeare Company Theatre's Harman Center, where both productions will be staged.

The memories and impressions of this period are many. There's Suzanne Bertish, the British actress and Royal Shakespeare Company veteran who plays Cleopatra, at the first read-through. She's dressed in mauve T-shirt and gym pants, half-moon glasses perched on her nose, as she reads Cleopatra's explanation for youthful fling: "My salad days, when I was green in judgment," from a Penguin book copy of the play. And sitting next to her, there's Long -- her Antony -- declaring, "In the East, my pleasure lies."

At a blocking rehearsal, later in March, there's Kahn deep in his own zone, watching scenes unfold, then interrupting them with fast orders -- always in that quintessential modulation, somewhere between purr and growl. The soothsayer must come in faster. No, he can't exit then, it would ruin Iris's sexual jokes. The cushions must be laid there. No, there. No, take them away. Let's take away some Egyptians, they're too distracting.

It is as if Kahn is furiously sketching, erasing and sketching again, the players before him nothing more than living/breathing drawings to be added or erased, added again -- or the entire sheet of paper screwed up and discarded.

The actors, be they queens, politicians or generals, do his bidding without question, seemingly without alarm.

"I think she's moving here," says Bertish of her character, as she walks across the rehearsal space, book in hand.

"The whole time?" asks Kahn, the answer "no" clearly in his question.

"Sometimes the actors say I'm too fast for them," says Kahn, sitting later in his office. "Because I'll have an idea and they'll execute it" -- he is snapping his fingers here -- "and then I'll change it without giving them a chance to try the new idea twice. That's frustrating for an actor. But I get the concepts fast, and I'm able to think through while I'm watching a scene."

Kahn is "a forceful, charismatic person literally at the center of the room," says Muse. "Everyone knows what the expectation is: that they produce and they produce now. A lot of people thrive in that environment, and others learn to thrive in that environment."

Asked about his earlier "frustrating" comment about Kahn, Muse responds:

"Michael really does demand excellence from everyone he works with. He wants talented, imaginative, self-generative actors who author their own performances and come up with their own ideas. And he wants brilliant designers who don't have to be walked through every step of the process. He demands the support staff on the play be world class. That hunger for excellence is what has marked this theater. But there's also an impatience there. If he feels he's not getting that, he gets frustrated."

The weeks pass, and Kahn's feelings about the production are mostly positive.

"I feel good today," he says at one point. "We found the life of Egypt in a really good way. But I went home yesterday, and I felt pretty lousy about not being able to figure out how to end Act 1."

Things are clearly getting better in April when he declares, "It's a very different play now from the first day I went into rehearsal -- although my feelings about the point of the play are the same. But each scene is richer for me than when I started -- that's when I know we're doing okay."

Kahn is a "master," says Bertish, who has worked with the likes of British director Trevor Nunn. "Incredibly knowledgeable, but he's not an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy. I've never worked in such detail on Shakespeare -- this moment-to-moment detail of 'What is happening? What are you saying?' "

And suddenly -- or so it seems -- it is the weekend before the play's first performance. Kahn has just weathered the tech rehearsal at the Harman -- the last hurrah before the big show. It is the first time he's seen the play at full thrust -- on the big stage, the cast in full dress, the musical cues, the vastness of it all.

He made last-minute changes, he says, which included changing Bertish's wig ("She looked better in a sleek hairdo than all those fluffy curls"), speeding up her entrance down the stairs, cutting some musical cues. And yes, removing more Egyptians. Sketching and redrawing till the last. Yet for all this, he declares, "it was one of the most relaxed technical rehearsals I've ever had of a difficult play, and I was determined not to lose my temper. So I didn't."

The rehearsal went so well, he says, he treated himself to "a nice gin and tonic at Clyde's" restaurant around the corner.

And with that drink, he washed the play away. It's an irony that as Washington settles in for another Michael Kahn production, he has already moved on.

"It's one of my faults. Once a play opens, I don't feel much ownership of it. I've done my work. I guess all of my control freakdom is done with the rehearsal. It's over."

For Kahn it's the beginning of a new venture -- in this case, the forthcoming July production of William Congreve's 18th-century Restoration comedy "The Way of the World." He has already read the play 15 times, he says. And his internal debate has already begun: "There's a lot of talk and I think there has to be less talk, but, on the other hand, how to keep all the great talk."

It is time, he says, "to roll up my sleeves and start from scratch."

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