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The Shakespeare Theatre starts another season Sept. 5, and that is cause for celebration. The Shakespeare Theatre befits Washington, D.C. It easily matches or surpasses both the commercial successes of Broadway and the tourist attractions of the Stratford Festival of Canada. Even though the Shakespeare Theatre is a relative newcomer and has been in its present incarnation only for about 15 years, it has already developed into one of D.C.’s great cultural institutions. With a 451-seat venue at the Lansburgh Building, located only a few blocks from the MCI Arena in the revitalized Chinatown-Gallery Place neighborhood, it should not be confused with the Folger Shakespeare Library, where it was once based, but which now has its own excellent touring Shenandoah Shakespeare Express and occasional special presentations such as “R&J,” an all-male “Romeo & Juliet.” Artistic Director Michael Kahn has nurtured the Shakespeare Theatre, bringing it to national prominence. He recently received a million-dollar grant to continue his work, and he is establishing a classical acting graduate academy with George Washington University to ensure that traditions can develop. Kahn has taken significant risks, almost all of which have produced admirable results. Last season, he staged “King Lear” with Cordelia played as a deaf-mute who uses American Sign Language to communicate, with the Fool serving as interpreter. The youngest daughter, preferred by the doomed sovereign, was performed by a woman who was Asian-American, blond, and young — highlighting her contrast with her envious sisters. The choices had an excellent effect. The year before, he showed “Othello” with “Star Trek” captain Patrick Stewart as the Moor. Everyone else, including the scheming Iago, was African-American. The “photo negative” version of the narrative preserved its portrait of a man undone by jealousy, but it added its own commentary on the racial aspects of the tale. Some of the daring decisions, however, have been less popular. For example, Tennessee Williams’ experimental “Camino Real” turned out to be too abstract, despite a superb cast and excellent direction. Kahn and his thespians also have been able to bring in Hollywood stars to complement the regular company. Richard Thomas, Jean Stapleton, Stacy Keach, Harry Hamlin, Kelly McGillis, Hal Holbrook, and Joan Van Ark have been featured in the past few years. They have joined a talented crew, who all belong to Actors’ Equity, the professional union. Wallace Acton as a villain and Floyd King in comic roles have been especially well-liked. Perhaps unique to Washington, the theater has a Lawyers’ Committee that provides financial support and hosts such various activities as a members-only reception and a summer associates night at the “Free for All” open-air series in the Carter Baron Amphitheatre. The theater has been able to persuade a Supreme Court justice to appear in a cameo role every year at a special performance. Last year, Stephen Breyer was set to appear in “Coriolanus.” Technical difficulties with the elaborate set delayed the production for an hour, but the show went on and lasted until midnight. Earlier, the committee held a mock trial to determine if a hypothetical college that put on “Merchant of Venice” was promoting anti-Semitism. The jury acquitted. Anybody who was present for the marathon of the “Henry VI” trilogy compressed into a single play would know that the infamous line about killing all the lawyers is meant as a reflection of chaos, not a sentiment to be followed. It is spoken by Jack Cade, an anarchist whose popular revolt is not depicted sympathetically. Even though the dramatists undoubtedly deserve credit for taking their audience seriously and trying the more obscure plays, it does not require an elitist to take pleasure from the repertoire. The challenging works, such as the now-playing “Timon of Athens,” may require more appreciation of art than their more familiar counterparts, such as the forthcoming “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” but the quality is uniformly high throughout. Whether ticket-buyers know only “Shakespeare in Love” or even if “Cymbeline” is their favorite play, they will have an enjoyable evening. A subscription is the best means of taking in the offerings. Subscribers receive a detailed guide to the productions and are invited to special discussions. With 136,000 audience members in 1999, paid attendance has averaged more than 90 percent of the house. Virtually all the seats are good, at prices ranging from $14.25 for weekdays during the preview week to $62 for Saturday nights in the best locations. Online ticket exchange allows for easy rescheduling. The 2000-01 season includes five plays, three by the namesake man from Stratford-on-Avon: the local premiere of “Timon of Athens,” “Richard II,” “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” plus Freidrich Schiller’s tragedy “Don Carlos,” and Henrik Ibsen’s drama “Hedda Gabler.” The magnificent achievement of the Shakespeare Theatre should be experienced. With the Bard benefiting from a revival, audiences have the best opportunity on this side of the Atlantic to see his entire canon of some three dozen comedies, tragedies, romances and histories. There are few other locations where the dedicated theatergoer would be able to watch everything from “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Macbeth” to “Measure for Measure” and “Henry V.” As the Prince of Denmark said, “The play’s the thing.” Frank H. Wu is an associate professor of law at Howard University.

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