Festival to immerse D.C. in Shakespeare

THEATER

Arena Players revives comedy `Little Ham'

June 02, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

William Shakespeare will be one of the most celebrated dignitaries in the nation's capital when more than 20 organizations collaborate on a six-month, citywide Shakespeare in Washington festival in 2007.

The festival, announced at the Folger Shakespeare Library yesterday, will run from January through June. Participants range from Washington institutions such as the Shakespeare Theatre, Washington National Opera and Kennedy Center to international companies such as the Kirov Ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Kennedy Center president Michael M. Kaiser, who came up with the idea for the event, said, "The reasons for doing it, first and foremost, were because Shakespeare has inspired so many different artists and art forms ... ballets and opera and obviously plays, and symphonic music and choral music and chamber music and movies and modern dance - all inspired by one particular genius."

As to holding the festival in Washington, Kaiser pointed out that the confluence of the Shakespeare Theatre, the Folger and the Royal Shakespeare Company's five-year residency at the Kennedy Center makes this "a city very much steeped in Shakespeare. So there's absolutely a rationale for it being here."

Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn, curator for the festival, expressed hope that there will be a resonance between the festival's site and subject matter. "In discussing Shakespeare and Shakespeare's relevance in the 21st century, you see how he connects - in themes and the questions he asks - to power and politics, and here we are in the center of it," Kahn said.

Besides individual concerts and productions, which will include the Kirov Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff and an evening of seven short world premieres commissioned by the Washington Ballet, the festival will also feature multidisciplinary and multi-institutional works.

One example will be Duke Ellington's Shakespeare-inspired suite, Such Sweet Thunder, directed by Kahn and performed by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. The performance, scheduled for March 20, will also incorporate scenes and speeches enacted by classically trained actors as well as by interpretive jazz dance.

Here are other highlights, most of which do not yet have specific dates:

Shakespeare in American Life, a major exhibition at the Folger, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the world's largest Shakespeare collection. The library will also host a Folger Theatre production of the musical Lone Star Love, or The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas.

Leonid Lavrovsky's 1940 Romeo and Juliet, performed by the Kirov Ballet and set to the music of Sergei Prokofiev.

Verdi's Macbeth, produced by the Washington National Opera, May 12-June 1. Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli and Italian soprano Paoletta Marrocu star.

Reinventing the Globe: Shakespeare for the 21st Century, an exhibit at the National Building Museum featuring models, drawings and computer renderings of set designs for Shakespeare plays, commissioned by the museum. At least one of these sets will be built to demonstrate the process from design to performance.

Richard III, produced by the Shakespeare Theatre and starring Welsh actor Geraint Wyn Davies, under Kahn's direction.

Tiny Ninja Theater of New York's productions of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Presented as part of the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage series, the diminutive shows are staged using miniature plastic ninja figurines.

In addition, the Royal Shakespeare Company will perform the final play in its five-year Kennedy Center residency, and more works are yet to be added. Kahn said he is particularly interested in including experimental pieces.

For more information, visit www.kennedy-center.org/shakespeare.

Arena Players

Arena Players has some history with Langston Hughes' Little Ham. According to Robert Russell, who directed the current effort, the theater first produced this Harlem Renaissance comedy 45 years ago. Hughes attended that production and granted permission to add music to a subsequent staging. When Arena produced the play again, 10 years later, it was punctuated by a selection of Duke Ellington songs.

Russell sticks to that formula for this latest revival, in which cast members break into such numbers as "I'm Beginning to See the Light" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." He further enhances the proceedings with an adorable quartet of dancing newsboys from Arena's Youtheatre as well as a small ensemble of the theater's tap students.

The action focuses on Hamlet Hitchcock Jones (Grafton Gray), a numbers runner and ladies man who finds himself in trouble on both counts. In all, Russell surrounds Gray and his two love interests (Cathy Lyles and Patricia Joyner) with a supporting cast of more than 30.

The result, however, proves unwieldy. And entertaining as some of the music and dance interludes may be, they can't compensate for the inefficiency of the overall staging - a shortcoming clearly at odds with the fast-paced slice of life depicted by Hughes.

Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, through June 12. Tickets are $15. Call 410-728-6500.

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