How will Shakespeare go on with­out Kahn?

The Shakespeare Theatre Com­pany will face dra­matic chal­lenges with the exit of artis­tic di­rec­tor Michael Kahn

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PETER MARKS peter.marks@wash­post.com

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 twothe­ater 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 upand-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-ofa-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.

RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Michael Kahn, artis­tic di­rec­tor of Shakespeare Theatre Com­pany, has an­nounced he will give up that role at the end of the 2018-2019 sea­son.

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