Shakespeare on the Potomac

Considering that the Folger Shakespeare Theatre combines two of my favorite things- history and theater- I can’t believe  that it took me this long to make my way to this brilliant time warp on Capitol Hill. Outside of the Globe in London (which is a giddy pleasure to any theater nerd- check it out at http://www.shakespearesglobe.com ), the Theatre’s intimate half-timbered stage with dark wood paneling and tiered balconies is probably the closest I’m going to get to feeling transported back to an Elizabethan playhouse.

The Elizabethan Theatre

The Theatre opened in 1932 as part of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials. Yes, really, the largest in the world- over 275,000 books. There’s a great new biography about Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger, who spent their lives and money carefully collecting manuscripts and founding the library (you can read a review of Collecting Shakespeare here: http://goo.gl/P65Dyn). It’s a mecca for Elizabethan and Renaissance scholars, but just sitting in the gorgeous theatre brings the history of the period alive in a much more visceral experience.

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Joseph Marcell as King Lear

In a perfect confluence of theatrical form following function, I saw King Lear starring Joseph Marcell (the butler on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air- yup, he always seemed more talented than his sitcom material). It’s a traveling production that originated at the Globe. It’s a fantastic and energetic performance, and I’m certainly not an expert on Shakespeare in general or King Lear in particular, but I found a few of the character and interpretative choices questionable.

Some of the actors came out before curtain to interact with the audience. I guess it’s supposed to be inclusive and make us feel like we’re getting a behind-the-scenes peak into the magic of performing or something. But I always find that awkward. I don’t want to make small talk with a bubbly, cheerful working actress. I want to enjoy a ruthless, cold-hearted Reagan. On stage. Not leaning over my lap.

Using a small number of actors in double, triple or even quadruple roles also made it momentarily distracting as I tried to recall which character was supposed to be speaking. And one scene in which the actor playing both Edmund and Oswald runs back and forth across the stage putting on and removing a hat emphasized the gimmick over the content.

However, the most jarring creative choice of the show was the addition of music between scenes or as interludes. Since the play is over 400 years old, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it ends badly for Lear and his family. Most of the main characters lay dead on the stage. Instead of giving the audience time to feel the impact of the story- the heartbreakingly empty victory of the remaining loyal and just characters- the actors slowly and dramatically rise and… break out in an Irish jig! It’s entertaining but disconcerting. It didn’t feel right to walk out of Lear cheerfully humming.

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Decorative freeze of King Lear on the outside of the Shakespeare Folger Library

 

It’s not a subtle, nuanced interpretation. Most scenes are played at a fever pitch that can often become shrill and generates lots of sustained shouting (which led to lots of inadvertent spitting by the actors making me glad I was not sitting closer to the stage).

For all that nitpicking, I thought this was a terrific production with an excellent cast (Bethan Cullinane’s Fool and Alex Mugnaioni’s Edgar/Duke of Cornwall were especially compelling).

It’s worth a trip to the Folger Theatre even if you can’t handle the thought of sitting through a Shakespeare play. Either take a tour to see the space (as well as the library and garden) or buy tickets to one of the other plays, concerts, lectures or festivals offered throughout the year (http://www.folger.edu/whatson.cfm). I finally found my way to this unlikely Elizabethan oasis across from the Capitol and will definitely be back.

 

It’s cold, wet, and miserable and it seems like this snow will never stop falling here in Washington. But I can’t even imagine dealing with four times this amount of snow without central heat, snowplows, and insulated gloves. When the legendary Blizzard of 1888 paralyzed the East Coast, Washington was not only shut down but isolated for days as telephone and telegraph lines snapped. New York City was hit even harder. As this video shows, over 200 people died in that city alone- some literally buried in snowdrifts. Even de Blasio would have shut schools for that one.

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