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February 25, 2010

A REVIEW – Shakespeare Theatre’s Triumphal Pair

Roy Meachum

Shakespeare’s history is not to be trusted. He remains true to his profession as storyteller, feeling free to fudge on petty details; sometimes he manages whopping lies, as long as the ending comes out to accord with factual truths. Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company has a pair of doozies currently running in repertory: Richard II and Henry V.


First maybe I should define repertory: casting actors in different plays and running them back-to-back. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre did it all the time; fearful of boring the audience, different plays were intertwined. Later, acting companies on the road had no choice when they were booked two nights or more in the same town. Directors had to keep the staging as different as they could while the faces remained the same.


STC’s Artistic Director Michael Kahn knows all about it. When he still taught at New York’s Julliard, he and John Houseman ran The Acting Company. Mr. Houseman’s celebrity advertised the student players while Mr. Kahn did much of the work. The company appeared at Ford’s Theatre, where I reviewed them.


Michael Kahn has used the years since to the theatrical muse’s advantage. The unassailable quality his present company displays is the consistently best staging I’ve seen, in the 45 years since I first sat on the aisle, in a critic’s seat.


His “Richard II” production is impeccable, leaving awe over the way he uses all the three-level set to tell the story. New York’s original presentation of “The Man of La Mancha” was provided with temporary stages – like a three-tier chess board – that pulled off the same sleight of hand. But the ANTA Washington Square lived for that musical only; it was torn down when Lincoln Center space became available.


In a strong way, David Muse’s “Henry V” is more amazing; he’s not had the weathering of victories and failures, as his boss. Mr. Muse serves as the STC’s associate artistic director for Mr. Kahn. Together they left me shaking my gray beard at what they have wrought; show after show.


Of the two works in repertory, the artistic director assigned himself the lesser work: “Richard II” started out as a polemic against Elizabeth I, according to one theory. The story’s consistent with the history of his histories that generally, but not always, were written to create political advantages. While he was up, so to speak, Shakespeare’s tossed off the classic quotes that start:


“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,

And tell sad stories of the death of kings…”


And he has a shot at proclaiming his love of his native land:


“This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise…..”


His proclamations about his love for England and his sadness in telling about “the death of kings, according to one theory, were linked to the Earl of Essex’s conspiracy to overthrow the queen. The earl had his head separated from his shoulders, as readers know; the English language greatest playwright may have been tossed into the hoosegow –we don’t know for sure. He got out, in any cheerful case.


Mr. Muse had the happier chore. His theatrical magic went to show off the king who had seized lands from France that had been lost through inheritance – although not as clear as “Henry V’s” opening scene shows. The historical drama trots out the ultimate in pep-rally war speech:


“Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more,

Or close the wall up with our English dead…”


In the STC production, the king does not proclaim it, but tosses the words off, while sitting on the ground with his closest companions. In any event, Mr. Muse creates brilliant effects and stage alchemy.


Dear William didn’t let the real cause for victory at Agincourt get in his way of lauding monarchy or turning more than several turns of speech; the record shows the famous battle was really won by ordinary men, some from farms. English long-bows triumphed over the more numerous French, including the well-turned-out nobility heavily armored and on “fierce steeds.”


The chief burden both directors face was built-in: the Bard plays are intended to profit the Globe Theatre; the operation made money on the refreshment stands: wine, beer, oranges, etc. So Shakespeare accommodated the necessity by writing many acts so the audience could refresh: eat, drink and drop coins into the management’s pockets. This is why the Bard’s works last so long.


Sir Laurence Olivier made cuts for the famous filmed version of “Henry V.” I’m not talking about taking an axe to the plays, but judicious editing wouldn’t really hurt. Still, I know I’m whistling past the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s doors.


Still left to do is handing out roses for individual performances: Michael Hayden deserves a double cart full; he plays both kings and duly turns in totally different characterizations. I have seen great Shakespearian players who set the mark for leading parts: I even witnessed Paris’ Jean-Louis Barrault, whose French needed no translation. Mr. Hayden belongs in that select group,


Effusing on each individual is deserved; but there’s no time or space. Nobody on stage misses the mark, with dialogue or physical positioning. Today’s staging demands more than a measure of chorography. At the possibility of incurring wrath from their colleagues, allow me to mention Rachel Holmes, Charles Borland and veteran Ted van Griethuysen, who always brings a majesty to whatever character he’s called upon to portray. I was singularly impressed with newcomer Derrick Lee Weeden, who radiates strength, conviction and an incredible presence.


Obviously, after all that I’m recommending two visits to the Shakespeare Theatre Company a pair of evenings before April’s second weekend when “Richard II’ and “Henry V” vanish into the theatrical heaven both productions deserve.


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