- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

For the next six months, Washington will be all about the Bard.

It’ll be Stratford-Upon-Potomac as more than 61 organizations present 500 performances marking William Shakespeare’s influence on culture and entertainment. That influence embraces everything from opera, theater and ballet to tiny plastic ninja toys, comic-book superheroes and Supreme Court decisions.

The Shakespeare in Washington festival runs from January through June, with a free kickoff event at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Jan. 6, a staged reading of “Twelfth Night” on the 12th night after Christmas, directed by Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn and featuring local luminaries Franchelle Stewart Dorn, David Sabin, Floyd King and Howard Shalwitz as well as B-list celebrity Bronson Pinchot playing the curdled Malvolio.

Mr. Kahn is serving as curator of the festival, which he says began as an innocent breakfast meeting with Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser. “Two years ago, Michael was scheduled to visit with me at the Kennedy Center, and I thought I had to be armed with an idea — so I came up with this one,” Mr. Kahn says. “Turned out, Michael wanted to meet for an entirely different reason. But he loved the idea.”

Of course, neither of them imagined the festival would seep into nearly every nook and cranny of Washington, including the Bead Museum (an exhibit of adornments titled “To Bead or Not to Bead”), the Fairmont Hotel (a Romeo and Juliet Package that features a “Love Potion” cocktail for two that we assume is not fatal), and a discussion and screening at the University of Maryland on April 25 titled “Shakespeare Undressed” (which carries the R-rated disclaimer that no one under 18 will be admitted).

“It has taken on a life of its own,” Mr. Kaiser notes. “The collaboration between so many arts organizations has just been incredible. And the festival is not just about Shakespeare’s plays, but all the other things he has inspired. I can’t think of any other individual artist who has had this much influence beyond his original art form.”

Mr. Kaiser plans to be inspired by Lars Lubovitch’s interpretation of “Othello” by the American Ballet Theatre (Jan. 11 through 14 at the Opera House) “because it has a personal connection for me — I was the executive director of the ABT when it was being developed,” he says. “The 4D Art company of Montreal is also doing a multimedia ‘Tempest’ that is just incredible — using modern technology to create a timeless mise-en-scene.” (“The Tempest/La Tempete” will be performed March 22 through 24 at the Eisenhower Theater.)

The purpose of the festival is twofold. “First, we wanted to show Shakespeare’s genius and impact on a magnitude that has never been done before. The only thing that comes close in scale is perhaps the Mostly Mozart Festival,” Mr. Kahn says. “Second, we wanted to highlight the city’s rich cultural life, which I believe is still largely a little-known secret.”

Whisking the city’s arts scene out from under the monuments’ shadows is the also the goal of Gail Kern Paster, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which celebrates its 75th birthday in 2007. “In 1932, when the founders built the library, the tradition of Washington having links to Shakespeare started, and this festival is the realization of that vision.” she says.

“You can see the influence of Shakespeare in American life everywhere from the adoption of more naturalistic acting styles by actors such as Edwin Forrest beginning in the 19th century and Shakespeare plays being performed at the Wild West frontier — a phenomenon wittily observed by Mark Twain — to all the sitcoms containing Shakespeare episodes, including ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and ‘Happy Days.’ Throughout American history, Shakespeare has been used as an expression of democratic values.”

It’s a British-inflected offering that has caught Mrs. Paster’s eye, however: Henry Purcell’s 1691 semiopera, “The Fairy Queen,” inspired by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and starring Sir Derek Jacobi and Lynn Redgrave. The concert will be performed April 13 through 15 at the Folger Theatre.

Shakespeare also has filtered into our nation’s justice system, as evidenced by one of Mr. Kahn’s favorite offerings, “The Supreme Court Hears the Trial of Hamlet” (March 15, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater), presided over by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. “We did it a few years ago for a private event, and Justice Kennedy called up and said he’d like to do it again,” Mr. Kahn says. “The last time, Hamlet lost, and the lawyer for the defense has assured me it’s not going to happen twice.”

Mr. Kahn also hopes to catch up on some of the Shakespeare-inspired films he has missed and to hit the shows at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the National Building Museum. “For me, the fun of this will be that you can take one play — ‘Hamlet,’ ‘The Tempest’ or ‘King Lear’ — and follow it through from stage productions to movies, ballet, opera, concerts, exhibits and readings. You can’t do that with anyone else but Shakespeare.”

For a full schedule of Shakespeare in Washington events, visit the Web site at http://ShakespeareinWashington.org.

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