The Washington Shakespeare Theatre's home just north of Crystal City on Clark Street is approaching the end of the road, but there is a great deal of life left in the institution yet. "Death and the Kings Horseman" is the first of the last - the first production by the company in this, their last year in the playhouse which is to be demolished for redevelopment after the final show this summer.
John Vreeke returns to the Washington Shakespeare company to direct this 1975 play by the winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in Literature, Wole Soyinka. Vreeke, who directed his own adaptation of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" here and whose direction of "Homebody/Kabul" for Woolly Mammoth and Theater J in Washington and "For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again" at
Alexandria's MetroStage are so well remembered, gives the play a
production with the weight to match the aspirations of the author.
Soyinka's play is based on an actual event that occurred in the Yoruba city of Oyo in Nigeria in 1946, during the period of British colonial rule.
Following the death of the Yoruba King, the Colonial District Officer
learned that the local traditions called for the man who had held the
position of "The King's Horseman" to commit suicide in order to
accompany his king to heaven. The British officer determined to prevent this without regard to the consequences of his interference with the indigenous culture.
Soyinka's play is an exploration of the violence colonial powers do to the values of the native peoples whenever they attempt to impose their own standards on those they control. In his script, and in Vreeke's staging, there is precious little doubt as to which side will win the ideological argument. Clearly Soyinka sees Yoruba values as much more civilized than those of the occupying British and he gives voice to the argument in many ways.
What saves the evening from being a didactic bore is the bright
language that Soyinka gives to both sides of the arguments and the honesty which Vreeke has the cast display for each statement of values. Yes, the Yoruban position gets the better of the argument, but the British characters aren't simply straw-men in a classic debate technique.
Ian Armstrong, Nanna Ingvarsson and Richard Mancini make the primary British characters real people with an honest belief in what they espouse.
Ingvarsson is particularly good in the key argument with the son of the "horseman," but Armstrong too avoids making the District Officer a martinetwith no capacity for thought, and Mancini gives a bit of depth to the comicrole of a British resident who can't quite understand why the local population is allowed to hold any view that doesn't comport with his own.
Felipe Harris' manner and posture in the role of the horseman is
impressive but the real meat of the piece comes in the scene with Ingvarsson when Clifton Alphonzo Duncan, as the horseman's son, gives voice to the values of his people and renders judgment on the values of the British. It is a riveting scene.
The company still has "Richard III" on tap as well as "The Childrens'
Hour" and an intriguing piece by Julie Jensen called "Two-Headed" before the scheduled events at Clark Street come to an end.
No one knows for sure just where the company will be producing its work by this time next year. Will they be one of the companies presenting shows at the new Arlington County-supported facility on South Four Mile Run Drive when Signature Theater moves into its new digs across the creek in Shirlington? Will they find another hall? Will they be nomadic for a while?
No one, least of all this writer, believes that they will not be
producing. This troupe has determination, commitment and drive and we'll be hearing more of them in the years ahead.
WHERE AND WHEN: "Death and the Kings Horseman" plays Thursday - Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday at 2 p.m. through March 12 at the Washington Shakespeare Company's Clark Street Playhouse, 601 South Clark Street. Tickets are $22 -$30 with discounts for students and seniors and $10 "25 and under" rush tickets available half an hour prior to show time if the show is not sold out. Call 800-494-8497 or log on to www.washingtonshakespeare.org.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.