If you thought the announcement of this year's Shakespeare in Washington festival meant innumerable productions of the standard works in a boring succession of "Romeo and Juliets," "Taming of the Shrews" and "Macbeths," you were wrong. The festival has brought us works we might never otherwise have seen, as well as new approaches to works we thought we knew well.
A leader in the category "works we might otherwise never have seen" has to be the Washington Shakespeare Company's intriguing and entertaining production of a history play that may or may not be from the pen of the Bard of Avon.
When "Edward III" was first printed 400 years ago it didn't have the name of a playwright on its cover. For centuries there has been speculation that it might well have been the first in Shakespeare's series of plays detailing the history of English rulers. There's little doubt that he wrote plays about British monarchs by the name of John, Richard and Henry.
For the record, the Edward here is one of the longest-reigning holders of the British crown ever. He was the King of England from 1327 to 1377. During that time, he defeated the Scots to the north and then waged war against the French across the channel to the east. That war continued in an on-again, off-again fashion long after his death and is now known as "The Hundred Years War."
The play, which opened a one month run last week at the Clark Street
Playhouse just north of Crystal City, shrinks the time frame of its central story just as was Shakespeare's habit with plays that pulled together events and characters from over a lengthy period to tighten dramatic impact. The Scottish wars are dispensed with in the first minutes of the play, setting up a love interest between Edward and the Countess of Salisbury. It is a love that is fraught with court intrigue, in part because both the King and the Countess were married — and not to each other.
THE BULK OF the play deals with Edward's battles with the French and his hopes for his son, the Prince of Wales who is known to history as "The Black Prince."
Director Joe Banno sets the action on an eight-sided platform surrounded by the audience. The platform itself is ringed with sleek, modern chairs and serves as a large conference table for the king's many war councils. It is big enough, however, so that scenes are played out entirely on its gray surface.
With the cast dressed in contemporary clothing and the war council calling for battle reports by telephone, it is clear that Banno is not attempting to create historical accuracy. Instead of a history lesson, the evening is an entertaining portrait of the ruler's hopes, fears, frustrations and temptations.
Playing Edward is Bruce Alan Rauscher, who adds a unique role to his long resume of sharp characterizations. His work is complemented by a marvelously supple performance by Karen Novak as the Countess of Salisbury. Jason McCool performs as "The Black Prince" with a vigorous enthusiasm as the youth sent off to war by a father who wants him to have a chance to prove himself.
Not all scholars agree that this play is, in fact, by William Shakespeare.
Be that as it may, however, Joe Banno has given local audiences a rare chance to see that it is a fine play no matter who wrote it.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.