Washington may have achieved renown as the official address of presidents, but savvy denizens know it's also a comfortable short-term residence for kings and queens. This transient royal population settles in so regularly that more than one supreme ruler -- sometimes as many as three or four -- can often be found in town at the same time.
That happens to be the case at the moment. Let's see: There's a scion of the Plantagenet family encamped across the river in Arlington; a redheaded virgin queen receiving visitors on Capitol Hill; a foul-minded despot (don't tease him about the hump) lurking about downtown. These monarchs come not only from across the sea but also across time. And though you aren't going to run into them on the cocktail circuit, you can reliably catch them at Washington theaters, where they are currently appearing as title characters in famous plays about their lives: "Henry V." "Elizabeth the Queen." "Richard III."
The city, it seems, has an insatiable appetite for power -- and for stories onstage about the people who wield it. More than that, however, what these concurrent events reveal is that this is a metropolis in love with the classics.
It is a measure of that ardor that the three theater companies presenting these plays advertise their devotion with their very names: the Shakespeare Theatre, where "Richard III" is playing; Folger Theatre, part of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is offering Maxwell Anderson's "Elizabeth the Queen"; and the youthful Washington Shakespeare Company, performing its "Henry V" in a nifty warehouse space just across the Potomac.
Need more evidence? The Royal Shakespeare Company arrives here this week for a month of performances of "As You Like It," the inaugural production in a five-year partnership with the Kennedy Center -- the RSC's only such arrangement in a major American city. Although the company is struggling through a period of financial difficulty, it remains one of the two or three most important interpreters of Shakespeare in the world. The RSC's arrival intensifies the Elizabethan convergence here: On Wednesday, the RSC's new artistic director, Michael Boyd, is to join the Shakespeare Theatre's longtime leader, Michael Kahn, for a special program at the Kennedy Center. Together on the Millennium Stage, they will celebrate the Bard's 439th birthday.
In some ways, Washington's interest in the classics eclipses that of the big theater town to the north. Shakespeare makes only the rarest of appearances on Broadway anymore; the last was a limp "Macbeth," starring Kelsey Grammer, three years ago. Though Lincoln Center has announced that it will mount its own "Henry IV," Parts 1 and 2, with Kevin Kline this fall, much of the major Shakespeare in New York is imported from England and presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. That there's no major Shakespearean company there on a par with Kahn's is scandalous. Even the vaunted New York Shakespeare Festival, part of the Joseph Papp Public Theater, has ratcheted down its commitment. Nowadays, ostensibly for budget reasons, it stages only one summer production, rather than the normal menu of two, in Central Park's Delacorte Theater. Last year it offered a starry (Jimmy Smits, Julia Stiles) if ill-conceived "Twelfth Night," complete with a mountainous set that the actors inexplicably used as a slide.
The "Twelfth Night" at the Folger last winter, directed by Aaron Posner, was far superior, a modest but satisfying entertainment that used music as forcefully and wittily as has any incarnation in recent memory. The production was one in an impressive array of venerable works that have been vibrantly mounted across Washington lately, from Arena Stage's elegant treatment of Moliere's "The Misanthrope" to Shakespeare Theatre's sublimely raucous handling of Ben Jonson's rarely seen "Silent Woman."
"It's an amazing city for the classics," declares Georgianna Ziegler, curator of the "Elizabeth I -- Then and Now" exhibit at the Folger library, designed to coincide with "Elizabeth the Queen." (The play, which stars Michael Learned, continues through May 4; the exhibit closes Aug. 2.) "I've been surprised by the amount of Shakespeare that gets done," she adds. "You can have two or three productions at the same time and still attract an audience."
Ziegler thinks the city's embrace of Shakespeare is at least in part a function of its highly educated citizenry and a wonky affinity for things brainy. At the same time, she says, there's a strong strain of traditionalism where the arts are concerned, and no playwright taps more powerfully into the intellectual mainstream than the author of "Hamlet." "Lawyers have always been interested in Shakespeare," she explains, adding that she often gets calls at Folger from speechwriters and policymakers seeking literary reinforcement in words and ideas articulated four centuries ago.
There's a strong ethical core in Shakespeare, too, a sense of a world of disorder forever in quest of moral context and balance -- just the sort of concern that might appeal to the idealistic streak in a government town. "I think people remember Shakespeare from their earlier years, and there are things from his plays that go around in their heads when important things are happening in the world," Ziegler observes. "For a lot of people, Shakespeare is culture."
It was not always so clear-cut in the District. Kahn, who came to town in 1986, when the Shakespeare was based at the Folger, discovered he had to win over an audience that was not particularly attuned to Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
"We had matinees where there were 50 people in the house," the actor Ted van Griethuysen says, lamenting an early Kahn production of "Love's Labour's Lost" in which he appeared.
"Shakespeare wasn't the most popular playwright in Washington back then," Kahn says, sitting in his office on Eighth Street SE. "Now, he's become the most popular -- and there's almost too much Shakespeare!" (The drama glut has of necessity forged a vigilant spirit among the theaters; the Folger was considering "The Taming of the Shrew" for next season until it learned that the RSC is to return in December with a double bill of "Shrew" and John Fletcher's little-known "The Tamer Tamed.")
Over the years, Kahn explains, the audience seems to have matured. The resistance to unorthodox plays by obscure writers has decreased. "No longer does a Jacobean play seem like a soap opera, and no longer does an unfamiliar play just seem like a bad play," he says. The previously unheralded "Silent Woman," for example, a no-holds-barred comedy that ran from January to March, turned out to be one of Kahn's biggest critical and popular hits.
Kahn made a convert of van Griethuysen, who at first bristled at the idea of performing here. He's become a familiar face on the theater scene, having had the chance to play the wide assortment of roles over which classical actors tend to drool. In the next 12 months alone, he will appear at the Shakespeare in "Ghosts" with Jane Alexander and as Falstaff in the "Henry IV" plays, coincidentally being performed here and at Lincoln Center. In between, he'll be working at Studio Theatre, in Bertolt Brecht's "The Life of Galileo."
"At first, I wasn't interested in being in Washington," the actor says by telephone from Stratford, Conn., where he has a home. (He maintains an apartment in Washington, too.) Years ago, he participated in a play reading in Washington, and "it was a joke -- nobody took it seriously." The classics, however, have never been a growth industry in New York and, desperate to do the classics, he yielded to Kahn's entreaties. "Eventually, I began to realize what Michael was trying to do in Washington. He's made for a kind of revolution in the energy of the theater community."
As any loyal theatergoer knows, Washington has evolved its own stars, some homegrown, some lured from elsewhere, a loose-knit but well-oiled roving repertory company whose members often confer on a stage a feeling of continuity. "When you begin rehearsals and you look across the room at someone you've done 10 plays with, there's a certain automatic chemistry," van Griethuysen says.
Though New York is chockablock with talent, there is no high-profile venue to cultivate and cement the bonds between classical plays and audiences, and as a result, actors have a hard time developing the linguistic muscles, the theatrical antennae, for Shakespeare. Some little off-Broadway companies, like Theater for a New Audience, try to fill the gap, but it is rare for them to break out of their niche. In one encouraging sign, however, the Public Theater made a late addition to its current season of a production of "As You Like It," in which six actors assay 15 roles. It was a hit three years ago at the New York International Fringe Festival, a two-week gathering on the Lower East Side each summer of shows produced on a shoestring.
"There are few people who can make a career in New York at this kind of play," says Barry Edelstein, a Shakespeare scholar who has headed off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company for five years. Interestingly, in that time he's been able to muster the resources to stage only one Shakespeare, a well-received production this year of "The Winter's Tale" with David Strathairn as Leontes.
Cost has been an impediment -- the company's yearly budget is a fraction of the Shakespeare's $11 million -- and so has the difficulty of attracting "name" players to justify a production: "I've learned from doing Shakespeare around the country that a big difference here is you have to build the play around a star. It's not 'Let's do a play, and then we'll cast it.' It's having a bunch of conversations with major actors and asking, 'Which do you want to do and when do you want to do it?' "
Still, the talent pool in New York often guarantees a certain level of proficiency. Of his "Winter's Tale," Edelstein remarks, "I don't think there was anyone in it who wasn't trained by one of the three major acting conservatories" -- meaning the programs at Juilliard, Yale and New York University. This tends to be more of an issue in Washington, where in some cases the third and fourth acting tiers in large-scale classical productions do not quite hold up their end.
Washington's theaters, though, have been successful in another realm, recruiting a cadre of directors to give new textures to oft-performed works.
Among those mentioned by artistic directors are Posner, Richard Clifford, Joe Banno and Gale Edwards, all of whom are capable of devising complex conceptions of classics -- or plays like "Elizabeth the Queen" that seek to emulate the classics -- and executing them with originality.
Local companies as varied as Round House Theatre and the Olney Theatre Center also delve occasionally into the canons of Chekhov and Moliere. There's a healthy exploration, too, of new plays with classic connections: Next season, Arena Stage will produce the premiere of a new play by Ken Ludwig, "Shakespeare in Hollywood," a screwball-comedy account of a filming of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and Folger will present a play by Craig Wright, "Melissa Arctic," set in his native Minnesota and modeled after "The Winter's Tale." And the region is even doing some cultural exporting. In early September, Kahn is taking his 2001 production of "The Oedipus Plays," featuring Avery Brooks, to Athens, where it will be performed in a 5,000-seat amphitheater on the south slope of the Acropolis.
It is into this classical beehive that the RSC is stepping, starting Tuesday, when performances of "As You Like It" begin, directed by a company newcomer, Gregory Thompson. Boyd, the troupe's artistic director, says he is not all that familiar with American productions of Shakespeare but is eager to learn more. If that is indeed the case, then he's picked as good a locale as any for discovery. And besides, Boyd says, Washington is a city with a magnetic pull for people of influence. "It's like the court of Elizabeth, isn't it?" he observes. "You've got to go there."