Theater Review: Washington Shakespeare Company's evening of the Bard in Klingon

Live long and learn lines: Rehearsal for an evening in Klingon at Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre, covered by news outlets from around the planet.
Live long and learn lines: Rehearsal for an evening in Klingon at Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre, covered by news outlets from around the planet. (Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)
By Celia Wren
Monday, September 27, 2010

We all know about the defense and intelligence industries' explosive growth in recent years -- but sentry work outsourced to space aliens? That's a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, there they were on Saturday night, staking out sidewalks in Rosslyn: humanoids (or so it seemed) wearing red T-shirts distinctly marked "Klingon Security."

The lookouts were holding placards that pointed the way to the Rosslyn Spectrum, which was hosting a rare interplanetary cultural extravaganza: Washington Shakespeare Company's "By Any Other Name: An Evening of Shakespeare in Klingon," featuring "Star Trek" alumnus George Takei.

Who could question the need for the extra sentinels outside the venue? In announcing the one-night-only benefit -- built around the language invented for the Klingon figures in the "Star Trek" franchise -- Washington Shakespeare essentially cried havoc and let slip the dogs of media frenzy. The event was covered by news outlets in Canada, England, India and Indonesia, as well as around the United States. Demand was such that, according to Executive Director Warren Arbogast, the company began selling less desirable seats it had originally intended to seal off.

"Tonight, all the galaxy's a stage!" proclaimed company member Joe Palka, the evening's master of ceremonies, kicking off the proceedings on a dais near a large red Klingon flag. There were brief remarks by Arbogast and Washington Shakespeare Artistic Director Christopher Henley -- each of whom appeared in mild shock over the attention their experiment had received. Arbogast displayed the rumpled restaurant napkin on which he and Henley had scribbled their original ideas for the event.

The introductions paved the way for an amusing autobiographical talk by Washington Shakespeare board president Marc Okrand, who just happens to be the linguist recruited by Paramount Studios in the 1980s to invent the Klingon tongue. The bespectacled academic-turned-sci-fi-luminary gave a wry rundown of the syntax and exotic sound structure he'd concocted for the language. ("There's no "K" in Klingon, and that's that!" he insisted, illustrating the raspy, back-of-the-throat "kh"-type consonants he'd woven into the lingo instead). He good-humoredly recalled how various "Star Trek" actors and directors had inadvertently mauled his concepts over the years, forcing him to invent all sorts of baroque grammatical rules and double meanings for Klingon, a tongue he formalized in 1985's "Klingon Dictionary." (Later updated, it is now, of course, available in Kindle format.)

The evening really shifted into gear with the performances -- in Klingon and English -- of the Laertes-Hamlet duel scene from Shakespeare's most celebrated tragedy, as well as a passage of Beatrice-Benedick banter from "Much Ado About Nothing." (Those two works by the Bard have been translated in their entirety by the Klingon Language Institute, a Pennsylvania-based organization.) Four thuggish-looking Klingons, sporting gnarled foreheads and robed regalia and clutching spears and scimitars, looked on as the two "Hamlet" renditions were performed side by side -- a minute or two of the grating, guttural Klingon version, followed by a minute or two of the English one.

Riffing on the conceit that the Bard originally composed in Klingon ("You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon," a character famously pronounced in the film "Star Trek VI"), actors from the extraterrestrial version periodically broke character to tell the English-language actors that the transliterations were inaccurate. The four berobed Klingons pounded their spears now and then and roared softly in outrage -- or maybe enthusiasm. It was hard to tell.

Henley and actor Jay Hardee glided gracefully through the "Much Ado" material, followed by Okrand and Rachel Wyman barking out the exchange in Klingon. Finally, Takei stalked onstage and delivered a dignified but rather stiff and emotionless interpretation of Cassius's Act 1, Scene 2 speech to Brutus in "Julius Caesar." ("Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/like a Colossus . . . .") Rounding out the proceedings was a question-and-answer session fielded by Henley, Okrand and Takei.

Thespians and Trekkies who missed the event need not despair: Arbogast announced that Washington Shakespeare's Bard-in-Klingon gamble will likely be featured in an upcoming BBC documentary on language. To that end, "By Any Other Name" (minus Takei) may be remounted next February for a camera crew.

What's with the insatiable appetite for classics in a concocted parlance? The fault, dear reader, is not in our stars, but in ourselves: that we are suckers for a gimmick.

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