- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

The “Fab 15” — core actors in Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company — were down to a triumphant 12 to receive the Will Award, recognizing contributions to classical theater, at the institution’s annual benefit in the gaily bedecked Andrew Mellon Auditorium Sunday night.

The three missing from action were working on stages as far away as London, New York, and Olney, Md. — proof of the talent exhibited by a group that company artistic director Michael Kahn referred to in his remarks as “our family”: “Tonight is like a Thanksgiving dinner with our family. And we’re pretty functional as families go.

“It’s amazing what these actors can do,” he noted in his tribute.

They range in age from a youthful Claire Lautier, 36, to “ageless” 91-year-old Emery Battis, a veteran of some 90 productions in 20 years. Also included in this lively company is Floyd King, whom actor-director Keith Baxter introduced as someone who “could write a book about Shakespeare’s clowns.” In turn, Mr. King, speaking for all, said “we are 15 but could represent all the actors who have been on this stage. We honor them all tonight. We are honored because of the work, and the work is an honor.” Then the mischievous Mr. King could not resist a bit of fun, even after choking up while mentioning how “very proud” he was of the moment.

“It scared me that this [occasion] might be some sort of mass surprise retirement party,” he said in his coy way. “But we’re just getting started.” (Mr. Battis, according to Mr. King, called the award “very encouraging.”)

Asked at the reception to relate his favorite memory from nearly 20 years in Mr. Kahn’s company, Edward Gero, who last played the Duke of Buckingham in “Richard III,” answered “when he decided to keep me on.”

The 12 actors lined up like a high school graduation class after being brought on stage one by one to shake hands and accept a plaque from board chairman Landon Butler. They then were cheered on loudly by an audience nearly 350 strong who helped raise a record $500,000-plus, augmented by silent and live auctions merrily conducted by Kathleen Matthews, chair of the theater’s National Council. She also served as the gala chair along with her husband Christopher and with Maureen and Bill Torgerson.

“I wanted to ‘make an entrance,’ ” Mrs. Matthews said after gingerly riding to the front of the room on a Vespa that was one of the auction items. Another popular item for bidders was the offer to have a winning patron’s name given in perpetuity to a character in a Ken Ludwig play. The latter sold for $2,750.

As dizzy as six-figure proceeds may seem to outsiders, they are more and more taken for granted in a time when theater expansion is becoming routine in the area. Art dealer Ann Nitze said she will chair the theater’s next gala — the Oct. 1 opening of the new Harman Center for the Performing Arts — that promises to outdo nearly every other celebrity-laden fund-raiser to date. Sunday’s event planners wisely took as their theme colorful reminders of the company’s most recent production of “Love’s Labours Lost” that was set in 1960s India. (It proved a hit when it traveled to England last summer and will be performed again this year at the company’s Free For All in Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Rock Creek May 24 through June 3.)

A sitar player greeted guests at the entrance — the same musician hired for last year’s show. A brilliant rainbow banner was unfurled high above the stage. Costumes decorated the spacious hall whose columns were outlined in red light. Actor-singer Robert Cuccioli, who appeared in the company’s 2005 production of Lorenzaccio, entertained with a medley of songs from the ‘60s.

Ann Geracimos

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