That classically trained actor Patrick Stewart will star in Othello at Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC is not tremendously surprising. That he's playing the title character -- a Moor -- is, especially since the remaining cast will be played by African-Americans. Jude Kelly, artistic director of the UK's West Yorkshire Playhouse, directs this defiantly non-traditional approach, which opens Nov. 17 and runs through Jan. 4.
It was Stewart who came up with the concept. "I've been imagining myself playing Othello and, in a sense, preparing for it, since I was about 14," he said in a statement. "When the time came that I was old enough and experienced enough to do it, it was the same time that it no longer became acceptable for a white actor to put on blackface and pretend to be African. One of my hopes for this production is that it will continue to say what a conventional production of Othello would say about racism and prejudice... To replace the black outsider with a white man in a black society will, I hope, encourage a much broader view of the fundamentals of racism."
Stewart may best be known for his "Star Trek" duties, but he also won a Drama Desk for his Broadway solo in A Christmas Carol and played Prospero in a 1995, NY Shakespeare Festival Tempest that also came to Broadway. He's been an associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1967.
Appearing with Stewart in Othello is Ron Canada as Iago. He once studied acting with Francelle Stewart Dorn -- who plays Emilia. Also in the cast are William Badgett, Teagle F. Bougere, Darrell Carey, George Causil, Jimonn Cole, Chad L. Coleman, Patrice Johnson, Kate Skinner and Craig Wallace.
Also on tap for the Shakespeare Theatre, another season highlight would appear to be a revival of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird Of Youth, starring Elizabeth Ashley. Artistic director Michael Kahn, who directed Ashley in the 1974 Broadway revival of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, will stage the 1959 work about a fading actress being used by an ambitious conman on a downward spiral. Ashley's other Broadway credits include Take Her She's Mine, Caesar And Cleopatra, Barefoot In The Park and the 1995 Broadway revival of Suddenly Last Summer. Kahn's directing credits include the Williams plays A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Camino Real. Sweet Bird Of Youth plays May 26-July 12, 1998.
Acton will be a busy actor this season; he'll also play Peer Gynt in a Michael Kahn-directed staging of Henrik Ibsen's fantastical drama of a dreamer who travels the world in search of meaning. Gynt runs Jan. 20-March 8, 1998.
Also starring in Gynt are Emery Battis, Roy Cockrum, Jimonn Cole, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Edward Gero, Eric Hoffmann, Floyd King, Roberta Maxwell, Carol Monda, David Sabin, Kate Skinner, Ted van Griethuysen, Craig Wallace and Rebecca Waxman.
Designing the show are such major-leaguers as Ming Cho Lee (sets), Paul Tazewell (costumes) and Howell Binkley (lighting).
Then it's chaos in the countryside when Shakespeare's The Merry Wives Of Windsor takes the stage March 24-May 10, 1998. Daniel Fish directs the comedy, which stars David Sabin as Falstaff, Floyd King as Master Ford and Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Mistress Quickly.
Also part of the season will be the eighth annual "Shakespeare Theatre Free For All," featuring Kelly McGillis playing Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. Other programs include "Meet The Cast" presentations, "Afterwords" discussions, and the in-school program, "Text Alive!".
Members of the Shakespeare Ensemble include the aforementioned actors, as well as Emery Battis and Edward Gero. Artistic director Kahn is especially proud of the new season because it's the first time the company will have a five-play season: "Our audience will now have the chance to see a wider repertory of great classics."
Subscriptions to Shakespeare Theatre range from $55 to $245 (there are also "Young Theatregoer" subscriptions available for $34-$190). For information call (202) 547-1122.
-- By David Lefkowitz