A New DC Home for the Bard

Special Features   A New DC Home for the Bard The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, has opened its new home with two plays by Shakespeare's contemporary — Marlowe.

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The Shakespeare Theatre Company, long one of Washington's premier stage venues, has a new home — or rather a new second home.

"It's really state-of-the-art," says Michael Kahn, the company's longtime artistic director. "It's designed not only to help the company expand, but also to be a tremendously good home for dance and music. And it can transform itself from an open-end stage to a thrust stage to a proscenium."

Kahn is talking about his new 774-seat Sidney Harman Hall, which combines with his company's other venue, the 451-seat Lansburgh Theatre, to form DC's newest performance complex, the Harman Center for the Arts.

First up for Kahn at his new theatre is not Shakespeare but Christopher Marlowe — in fact, two plays by Marlowe: Tamburlaine, directed by Kahn and starring a Shakespeare Theatre regular, Avery Brooks of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" fame, and Edward II, directed by Gale Edwards (the plays are in rep to Jan. 6, 2008). Why Marlowe? "Our mission," Kahn says, "is to produce Shakespeare and his contemporaries — those plays that influenced him and those plays he influenced." Marlowe was born in the same year as Shakespeare, but Tamburlaine, Marlowe's first play — which relates its hero's quick rise from humble origins to fearsome warrior and emperor of thousands in central Asia — "was produced before Shakespeare wrote," Kahn says. "And it's clear that Tamburlaine was a huge influence on Shakespeare's Henry VI plays."

Then, Kahn says, "Marlowe began to see Shakespeare's plays and to write in a slightly less bombastic style. He wrote Edward II, which reflects more psychological capabilities, has more nuanced characters. And then Shakespeare turned around and wrote Richard II. There was a dialogue between the two, the most popular playwrights of their time, sort of like Matisse and Picasso in 20th-century art. If Marlowe had lived, it would have been very interesting to see how these two geniuses would have learned from each other, superseded each other, in their rivalry."

Kahn says he chose two Marlowe plays because "I wanted to open with plays in repertory, which I haven't done." Also, he declares, Tamburlaine is a great epic. "It seemed to me we should open a great space with a great epic story — a story about the clash of cultures, blind ambition, territorialism and conquest."

The play also carries a contemporary relevance. "You see fights between Christians and Muslims," notes the director. "Tamburlaine believes he either talks for God, or speaks to God, or wonders what God wants. But I'm not so much interested in that as in the fact that it's a great play by a genius that hasn't been seen in Washington. Part of our mission is to uncover plays and make them part of our repertory."

Kahn also calls Edward II "extraordinary" — a compelling portrait of a flawed monarch. "It's about a homosexual king whose private life becomes more important than his public life, and who seeks revenge when the nobles go against him and thwart his desires. In a very few years, from Tamburlaine to Edward II, you can see how the playwright matured and changed."