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Mirren to Grace D.C. Stage in Fall

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In something of a glittery coup for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren will be featured this September at the troupe's Sidney Harman Hall, in a visit by the Royal National Theatre's new production of "Phèdre."

Although well-known actors have long been performing at the Shakespeare, the participation of Mirren -- who made her reputation on London stages -- significantly ratchets up the glamour factor, particularly for a resident Washington company. And "Phèdre" won't be the only star-driven classic to make a bow in the capital this fall. A Sydney Theatre Company revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire," directed by Liv Ullmann and featuring Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois, makes its American debut in October at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

Officials of the Shakespeare Theatre say that Mirren's D.C. appearance, which will follow a three-month run of the play in London, is at this point the only U.S. engagement of the Jean Racine tragedy. It will also star British stage stalwart Margaret Tyzack and Dominic Cooper, of the Broadway and film versions of "The History Boys" and last year's movie adaptation of "Mamma Mia!" Nicholas Hytner, the National's artistic leader, will direct.

"It's thrilling. I'm so excited about them coming," Michael Kahn, artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company, says of Mirren and "Phèdre." He adds that Julia Sheinwald, wife of British Ambassador Sir Nigel Sheinwald, paved the way for the visit by suggesting to the National Theatre that it bring the production to Kahn's big new playhouse on F Street NW.

"Phèdre" -- in which Mirren, in the title role, plays an Athenian queen who has a fatal attraction to her stepson -- is to run Sept. 17-26 at Harman Hall. Although the company says the show will not be a formal part of the Shakespeare season, subscribers will get priority access to tickets. They will go on sale to the general public April 20.

Shakespeare's main stage season for 2009-10 will encompass six other productions, a reduction of one show from the current season. Kahn acknowledged that the company has had some growing pains, as it tries to become better acquainted with operating two theaters: the larger Harman, which opened in 2007, and the older and smaller Lansburgh.

The financial downturn was a factor in streamlining the menu, too. "Obviously, we're being careful about the economy," Kahn says, adding that he hopes to return soon to a seven-play season.

Three works by Shakespeare and dramas by Euripides, Pierre Corneille and George Bernard Shaw will fill the company bill. Starting performances on Sept. 29 in the Lansburgh will be Euripides' "The Bacchae," directed by the avant-gardist JoAnne Akalaitis. "As You Like It" will follow in November in Harman Hall, with director Maria Aitken, whose well-received "The 39 Steps" continues on Broadway.

Then, next February, begins a revolving repertory in Harman Hall of "Richard II" directed by Kahn and "Henry V" staged by David Muse. (A single actor will be cast as both kings, Kahn says.) Corneille's "The Liar," in a world premiere adaptation by David Ives, will follow in April in the Lansburgh, directed by Kahn. And rounding out the season that June is Keith Baxter's new production of Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession," in Harman Hall.

"The Liar" is of special interest because that production kicks off a novel five-year project: a series of commissions by Shakespeare Theatre Company of new adaptations of classic works. Under a grant from the Beech Street Foundation -- a philanthropic endeavor run by a Shakespeare board member who Kahn says asked to remain anonymous -- the company is in the process of matching prominent adapters and plays.

Akiva Fox, Shakespeare's literary associate, says two writers in addition to Ives already have been recruited. Barry Kornhauser -- whose "Cyrano," an adaptation of "Cyrano de Bergerac," was produced by the company -- is working on a version of Molière's "The Bourgeois Gentleman." And Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate, is writing a new version of Friedrich von Schiller's "Wallenstein."

In resuscitating classic works, Fox says: "The British theaters in particular have been leading the way. This is our opportunity to do the same kind of work. It's important to have a new spate of American adaptations that read as American."

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