Director Maria Aitken on 'As You Like It' at Shakespeare Theatre Company

SECOND ACTS: Actress Maria Aitken can now direct a Shakespeare production as she likes it.
SECOND ACTS: Actress Maria Aitken can now direct a Shakespeare production as she likes it. (Evy Mages For The Washington Post)
By Nelson Pressley
Sunday, November 15, 2009

If you know "A Fish Called Wanda," you know Maria Aitken. The English actress played the wife of John Cleese's character in that 1988 movie; now, perhaps fittingly, she's at the Shakespeare Theatre Company directing an "As You Like It" that routes the Bard through Hollywood.

Of late, her own career has veered sharply toward the theater. A longtime fixture of the London stage, she arrives in Washington as director of the international hit "The 39 Steps." That spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's thriller is going strong on London's West End; in New York, it's moving from Broadway to off-Broadway -- "where my producers optimistically think it will run forever," Aitken says.

A U.S. tour of "The 39 Steps," which began earlier this month, is scheduled to arrive at the Warner Theatre in March, at which point Washingtonians will get a chance to see the ingenious directing that earned Aitken a Tony nomination last year.

"It's the oddest little show," Aitken says in the Shakespeare Theatre offices before a recent "As You Like It" rehearsal. "When I first received the script, I threw it across the room. I thought, 'Nobody can do "The 39 Steps" with four people.' "

That the project has graduated from London's Tricycle Theatre to global franchise still surprises Aitken, whose comic bona fides include starring in the original production of Alan Ayckbourn's "Bedroom Farce" and writing the book "Style: Acting in High Comedy." "I think people are rather sick of trillion-dollar sets with rather indifferent stuff going on in front of them," suggests the 64-year-old director. "And I think that they enjoy enormously seeing illusions created out of almost nothing, and actors working terribly hard. . . . It's a one-off, because I'll never do anything like that again. It was just the most unpredictable baby of them all."

A timing quirk now brings Aitken to another movie-fueled stage venture. Years ago, Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn hired her to teach at Juilliard (for years Kahn doubled as head of the drama program there), asking her to do "As You Like It" with students. Aitken later refined her thinking while directing the play outdoors in London, developing the blockbuster-film motif that will be more fully on display here.

"I'd worked out how bits of the story fitted with bits of American history," Aitken explains of the production, which begins performances Tuesday at Sidney Harman Hall. The notion is that the forest of Arden -- where a knot of romantic problems gets sorted out among the various exiles adrift there -- is America via its classic movies. Dramaturg Akiva Fox fashioned a scene-by-scene study guide for the company: "Think 'Stagecoach,' " goes a typical tip. "Think 'Gone With the Wind.' "

The idea of a Hollywood soundstage (the key setting for this show) helped Aitken invoke a swath of American periods in the midst of Shakespeare's comedy. "Some of the reason for this is economic exigency, although it is rather lavish just the same," the director says. Derek McLane is designing the sets, Jeff Sugg is creating projections, and the clothes are by Martin Pakledinaz -- "who's a bit cross with me," Aitken says in what sounds like jest, "because there are 182 costumes."

The show's genre-hopping will be aided by musical theater composer Michael John LaChiusa (Broadway's "The Wild Party," the recent "Giant" at Signature Theatre). LaChiusa has been penning incidental music and full-blown musical numbers, and Aitken calls him "the jewel in my crown, because he's a pasticheur par excellence."

Aitken, a tall blonde with sublime English diction, played "As You Like It's" Maria herself in her 30s, but tried to leave acting behind once she took up directing. At first the money was better in front of the lights, but directing has kept her busy enough lately that she thinks -- hopes, in fact -- that she's through with acting. That attitude is a switch from her college days, when Aitken was so stage-struck that she used aliases to appear in more shows than her teachers allowed.

"It is a nearly unparalleled thrill sometimes, acting, but for about 20 seconds an evening you get it so right that you're in heaven," says Aitken, who has enjoyed leading roles with London's National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. "And then there's something else that isn't quite perfect, and that's your obsession for the next night."

Part of the "As You Like It" idea came from watching her husband, British novelist Patrick McGrath, acquire U.S. citizenship. She lives and works in New York and London, but finds a generosity toward the huddled immigrant masses here that doesn't always apply back home. England "tries to turn them into English people," she contends.

As for what she likes to direct, Aitken can't say. "I suppose the conjuring trick of theater is something that interests me," she muses. "But I don't honestly think I've got a big enough body of work to theorize about. It certainly doesn't feel like there's any controlling factor."

And in the end, she notes, it's all down to what's pragmatic: what producers are willing to produce. "Nothing exists," Aitken declares, "unless you're offered the money to do it."

Pressley is a freelance writer.

As You Like It

Tuesday through Dec. 20 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit http://www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Look for theater critic Peter Marks's review in Style on Nov. 24.

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