On any given night, in the houses that Michael Kahn built, you could find yourself transported to Illyria or Bohemia, to Dunsinane or Athens. Next to you might be seated a justice of the Supreme Court or an accountant from Gaithersburg or an English teacher from Manassas — all slaking their classical thirsts.
Up on the stages of his Shakespeare Theatre Company, you were apt to encounter actors, nationally known or locally grown, scratching the same itch. One month it could be Stacy Keach in “King Lear” or Charlayne Woodard in “The Taming of the Shrew”; another it might be Nancy Robinette in a drama by Oscar Wilde or Tom Story in a comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
They, and you, have Kahn to thank for setting iambic pentameter to a Washington beat; for expanding by some impressive magnitude the District’s appreciation of Shakespeare and a slew of other playwrights of antiquity, the Renaissance, the Spanish Golden Age and beyond. A diet hewing to a Western palate, to be sure, but also one that often tried to extend the menu and expand the table of dramatic possibility. For that, the region owes this proud, cosmopolitan man of insight and taste its warmest congratulations.
Kahn revealed last week that he will be relinquishing his artistic directorship of the company at the end of the 2018-2019 season, an announcement that reduces by one major figure the number of Founding Fathers (and Mothers) running the region’s stages. Among the major companies, only Howard Shalwitz and Eric Schaeffer, both a generation or so younger than Kahn, remain. And yet, given the distance Washington theater has traveled since Kahn arrived in 1986, his departure won’t be quite the seismic event it might have been, even a few short years ago. Yes, for sentimental and, certainly, artistic reasons, the change at the top of the company will have a sizable impact. But because Washington has matured into a theater town with such a variegated constellation of companies, creating and presenting drama in every category, there’s little worry that on a personnel level, the inspirational vacuum can’t be filled.
Except, perhaps, at the very company Kahn will leave behind. As Nelson Pressley reported last week in these pages, Kahn has vowed to bequeath to the next artistic director a fiscally sound organization, with its accounts in order. But any longtime patron of the company, observing how the quality of its seasons has taken a hit over the past several years, has to be concerned about what has been sacrificed in the efforts to juggle programming in its two spaces, its longtime home in the Lansburgh Theatre on Seventh Street NW, and, since 2007, its larger, grander theater, the $89 million, 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall on F Street.
A perusal of the selections made so far for the 2017-18 season reveals how conservative the company’s programming has grown. Where once it regularly ventured into daring terrain, producing some of the thorniest plays of Shakespeare, and uncovering some of the forgotten treasures of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages, the titles now suggest that it is making a conscious choice to lead from behind. The Shakespeares in the offing are default, brand-name titles: “Hamlet” and “Twelfth Night,” with a third, “Othello,” revived as the summer Free-for-All entry. A visiting production from Ireland, Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece, “Waiting for Godot,” is another scheduled war horse, along with a revival of — wait for it — Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 King Arthur musical, “Camelot.”
The one unconventional selection (with a sixth show still to be named) is a double bill of Harold Pinter one-acts, “The Collection” and “The Lover,” directed, tellingly, by Kahn, who of late has been directing more and more at other theaters around town, although he will also stage the company’s “Hamlet.” Still, for an organization that declares that its vision is “to ignite a dialogue that connects the universality of classic works to our shared human experience in the modern world,” it’s hard to see where the ignition occurs with a stolid musical that’s regularly performed by community groups and high school drama clubs everywhere.
It’s only been since the addition of Harman Hall that the company has been thumbing through Broadway songbooks to beef up its box office; recently, “The Secret Garden” was the decidedly nonclassical choice for this classical theater. “Kiss Me, Kate” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” have cropped up at the Shakespeare, as well. It’s a far cry from the more inventive crops the company used to harvest, through its own exciting commissions, such as an adaptation by John Strand of the French “closet play” “Lorenzaccio,” or, as recently as four years ago, a twin bill of Friedrich Schiller’s “Wallenstein,” in a new translation by Robert Pinsky, with a production of “Coriolanus.”
And although an inspired production can still materialize, such as the just-opened “King Charles III,” co-produced with two West Coast companies, informed spectators are sure to notice that exceptional programming is now the rare exception. Whoever is to succeed the estimable Kahn will have to think long and hard with the board and business side of the organization about whether the now 10-year-long experience of running Shakespeare as a two-theater behemoth, with a total of more than 1,200 seats to fill, is a burden or a blessing.
The company needs to be on its guard because, pound for pound, it is being eclipsed for ingenuity and nimbleness by its crosstown colleagues at Folger Theatre, which these days has become, with a shorter schedule, the go-to local troupe for classical innovation. The visits by scrappy up-and-comers such as Fiasco Theatre, as well as overseas visitors such as Shakespeare’s Globe and local playwright-directors such as Aaron Posner, have given Folger an unmatched imaginative momentum.
One can look back appreciatively, of course, on many one-of-a-kind classical offerings Kahn championed, in the conviction that he was cultivating a local audience that would itself grow ever more sophisticated. I think of the superior comedies, among them, his staging of Ben Jonson’s “The Silent Woman” and Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” as well as Keith Baxter’s direction of Sheridan’s “The Rivals.” High points too, were Kahn’s teamwork with dramatist playwright David Ives on adaptations of “The Liar” and “The Heir Apparent” as were the work of Rebecca Bayla Taichman on her Italian holiday of a “Taming of the Shrew,” Douglas Wager on a “Comedy of Errors” redolent of Hollywood back lots and Ethan McSweeny, via a heart-stopping “The Persians.”
A mile-long parade of notable actors has marched through with distinction: among them, David Sabin, Floyd King, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Patrick Page, Michael Hayden, Holly Twyford, Patrick Stewart, John Hurt, Elizabeth Ashley, Bruce Dow, Suzanne Bertish, Andrew Long, Tana Hicken, Finn Wittrock, Edward Gero, Philip Goodwin, and on and on and on.
That’s what you call a legacy. As Kahn graciously paves the way for his successor, let’s hope the company finds the wisdom — and the Will — to preserve the best of it.