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Packing up in our nationís capital (10/15/2008)
by Paul Barnes

Producing Director

Great River Shakespeare Festival

Henry IV, Part 1, the production Iíve been directing at the Folger Theatre here in Washington, D.C., played its sixth preview performance on Sunday evening and officially opens this coming Thursday, October 16. The merry debris of my Capitol Hill apartment signals what it always does, no matter what city or town in which Iím working: tech-dress rehearsal week has come to pass and itís time now to point the compass in whatever direction Iím headed next.

What an interesting time itís turned out to be in Washington. The upcoming election has in and of itself provided a palpable electricity, but the free-falling economy has heightened everything all the more. Iím living close to the Senate office buildings where the lights have burned late into the night; Iíve noticed familiar-looking, rather grim-faced congressional leaders huddled in quiet conversations at neighborhood restaurants; at the Folgerís annual Board of Trustees ďRenaissance CirclesĒ dinner, I sat between someone from Treasury (a Republican; coincidentally on my right) and someone from the Federal Reserve (a Democrat; naturally on my left), both of whom had in common many late nights and their own particular, differing theories about how we got into the current economic crisis and what needs to be done to get the country back on track. And, as a bonus, at the same dinner, the actress Lynn Redgrave, a Folger trustee, chatted with me about the first time she saw Henry IV on stage, at the age of eight, with her father, Sir Michael, as Henry Percy (ďHotspurĒ) and Richard Burton as Hal, the errant Prince of Wales.

Art and politics on intersecting trajectories once more.

Working on Henry IV, Part 1 has been its own intersection of art and politics.

A father on the throne, faced with mounting rebellions everywhere he looks; a recalcitrant and neíer-do-well son, resisting the inevitable and prolonging his profligate adolescence to the last possible minute; a generation of elders sending their sons into war; a crusade to the Holy Land with its implied slaughter of infidels postponed until domestic tribulations can be quelled. And yet, for all of its serious subject matter, Henry IV is a very human and very funny play: Shakespeareís first history to apply comedic techniques to make the story recognizable, accessible, provocative, and eminently enjoyable.

Iíve been struck by audiences at the Folger. They donít look much different from those at GRSF: high school and college students, young professionals, working folk, families, and retirees all eager to hear a great story told well. Theyíre probably a little more dressed up (it is Washington, after all); but the way in which they ďlean forwardĒ, listen, laugh, and respond is much the same as at WSU during our summer seasons. And the questions and arguments after the houselights come up feel reassuringly the same (some of my favorite comments have come from the wonderful security guards at the Folger who sneak into the theatre on their breaks to watch the play unfold).

I walked the National Mall on a recent day off, starting just down the block on the east side of the Capitol and the steps of the Supreme Court where protesters were hoping to draw attention to the plight of the death row inmate in Georgia whose trial and conviction has been brought into question, and ending at the Viet Nam War Memorial, where I fulfilled a longstanding pledge to press my hand against my good high school friend, Paul LoFortiís name, embossed forever on Maya Linís magnificent, haunting wall. (Talk about art and politics intersecting.)

Although Iíve been to Washington before, I never had time to stroll the Mall (in and of itself an extensive citizen/user-friendly public park for walkers, joggers, and cyclists); to climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and read his second inaugural address; to stroll along Pennsylvania Avenue, where every building is something --Treasury, National Archives, Commerce, RFK Department of Justice Ė all inter-spliced with public gardens, statuary, tree-canopied sidewalks, and museums - just the way the capital of a great nation should be, and for me, personally, the way any city or town manifests its identity as a whole and thriving entity striving to preserve the past, embrace the present, and dream the future, with commerce, art, education, politics, and recreation all intermingling and giving breath to whatís diverse and whatís best in each of us.

Ultimately Iíve been reminded how increasingly perilous and fragile are the times in which we live. Returning to Shakespeareís play for seven hours each day of rehearsal in which much is said about honor, about war, about taxes, about truth, and about fathers and sons, has been a superb sort of parallel mirror in which Iíve been able to reflect and ponder. And itís also made me eager to share this great play with audiences in Winona in some not-too-distant season. We have, after all, tackled only one history play so far in our brief history Ė Richard III in season two, so it will soon be time to pick up and revisit that thread of Shakespeareís writing.

But for now, back to the merry debris and the packing. Next stop: Las Vegas, Nevada, for The Importance of Being Earnest at Nevada Conservatory Theatre, and time in a wholly other kind of electric American city.

 

 

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