Six-month festival kicks off with 'Twelfth Night'

WASHINGTON — D.C. power brokers beware: The Bard is the king in the nation’s capital.

Well, for the next six months anyway. That’s the span of an unprecedented festival called “Shakespeare in Washington” that is being embraced by arts orgs near and far. Some 60 cultural groups will present more than 100 events here during the period, totaling more than 500 performances of seemingly every stripe.

And if the inaugural event was any indication, the Bardfest will be a solid hit with auds. More than 2,000 were turned away from an SRO reading of “Twelfth Night” at the Kennedy Center’s 2,500-seat Concert Hall Jan. 6. Lines began forming four hours before the show. Granted it was a free performance and spring-like weather attracted the year’s first wave of tourists. But hey, we’re talking high culture here.

The festival is the brainchild of Kencen prexy Michael M. Kaiser. Its curator is Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater Company. Together, the pair enticed theaters throughout the area to include a Shakespeare-related production in their spring lineups. The festival will also include museum exhibitions, lectures, dance and musical performances.

Kahn says the “astonishing” willingness of regional and even international arts orgs to embrace the project bodes well for future collaborations that will further raise the profile of this area’s arts scene. He says it positions the capital region as “the best place in North America to celebrate the genius of Shakespeare.”

Just how varied are the acts? Woolly Mammoth Theater will weigh in with David Greenspan’s “She Stoops to Comedy,” tiny Synetic Theater will offer a movement-based and wordless “Macbeth,” while Rorschach Theater will stage “Rough Magic,” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s take on “The Tempest.”

D.C.’s Theater J will present a reading of Arnold Wesker’s “Shylock,” a re-imagining of “The Merchant of Venice” featuring Theodore Bikel, while Studio Theater will offer Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Signature Theater will host a production of “Hamlet” by the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv, Israel, performed in Hebrew.

Adding to the international flair is the Kirov Ballet and Opera’s annual visit to the Kennedy Center this month with its landmark ballet, “Romeo and Juliet,” and Verdi’s opera, “Falstaff.”

Other international participants include Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, currently hosting its own high-profile year-long festival of the Bard’s works. The RSC will perform “Coriolanus” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, its final production in a five-year residency program here.

One might think that Shakespeare aficionados could be satiated with the normal diet of the Bard in this city. After all, the Folger Shakespeare Library houses the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, while its adjoining Folger Theater performs his work in a quaint Elizabethan space. “The Tempest” is its contribution to the festival.

Kahn’s own Shakespeare Theater Company aspires for recognition as the country’s premier interpreter of Shakespeare. Its production of “Richard III” this month will feature Geraint Wyn Davies. Other D.C. troupes include the Washington Shakespeare Theater, which is mounting “King Lear,” “Edward III” and “Macbeth.”

Even Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is joining the fun. He will preside over the trial of Hamlet in an audience-participatory perf exploring the litigious life and actions of the Danish crown prince.

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