BWW Interview: Washington Says Farewell to Michael Kahn with THE ORESTEIA
When it comes to farewells in Washington they usually are associated with three scenarios - electoral defeats, term limits, and funerals. So it is a rare moment when the nation's capital gets to celebrate someone going out on top. And that is what makes the Shakespeare Theatre's production of The Oresteia, directed by the legendary Michael Kahn, so bittersweet. As Kahn prepares to step down after more than three decades as the company's Artistic Director, actors, artists, and theatergoers get not only a chance to say goodbye, but to enjoy his work one last time.
Adding to the production's celebratory feeling is the return of several veteran actors of previous Kahn-directed Shakespeare Theatre productions. For some, their relationship with the director dates back not merely years, but decades.
"It is a supreme honor to return to DC for Michael's final production. I think I am the only company member who also performed in Michael's first production playing Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet in 1986," said Franchelle Dorn who is in the chorus of The Oresteia. "Getting away from my job at the University of Texas - Austin is always a challenge, but this production was well worth it."
Corey Allen, who is also in the play's chorus and was last seen in the company's 2017 production of Macbeth adds, "He's [Michael Kahn] a legendary figure in our community, mythic, even. When I was in drama school, I'd hear stories about this demanding director who could strike terror in an actor with a glance. His reputation at both the Shakespeare Theatre and Juilliard cast an intimidating shadow, but when I came to work on Macbeth and experienced his theatre for myself, I was awed. Not only by the incredible organization he's shepherded but by his tremendous heart."
Freely adapted from the trilogy by Aeschylus, McLaughlin's play is an epic, which seems only fitting for Kahn's final production.
"The Oresteia is an ancient, ferocious family drama, the story of a domestic tragedy that reveals a greater crisis in the society in which that family lives and leads. King Agamemnon sacrifices his first born child, Iphigenia, to the gods, in order to set sail for the Trojan War, and his wife, Queen Clytemnestra, in the ten years he's off at war, never forgives him for Iphigenia's death, but rather nurtures a desire for vengeance which fuels every moment of the rest of the play," says Kelley Curran who plays Queen Clytemnestra.
"Michael has wanted to do The Oresteia for a very long time. He has assembled an amazing production team and being in the cast lets me be one of the threads in this, his last undertaking as the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Artistic Director," says actress Helen Carey who is in the chorus. "For three decades, Michael has presented Washington with a rich tapestry of productions that have entertained, enthralled and challenged audiences, young and old. To say I'm thrilled to be in this production is an understatement!"
With so many actors returning for Kahn's final production, it begs asking the question: what is it about this director? How would one describe his style and can they take us behind the curtain into the rehearsal room?
"Michael runs such a tight, professional rehearsal room. No cell phones in the room, no wasting of time. He takes the work deeply seriously, while managing to keep a sense of humor about it all, and he expects you to do the same. In my experience of him, Michael is interested in each actor's truth, and their ability to trust that in order to build their role in the play," says Curran.
"I'd say Michael works like an architect, building one block atop another. The rehearsal process has been one of real exploration," adds Corey Allen. "We experiment and if what we come up with doesn't work, Michael encourages us to try something else. Sometimes that means starting over from scratch and though that can be hard, no art worth its salt comes without sacrifice, right?"
Both are sentiments shared by Carey and Dorn as well. However for Dorn, one rehearsal was particularly memorable.
"Michael is a questioner and observer. He will tell you what he sees and make suggestions or ask questions that make a given choice clearer or better," says Dorn. "Sometimes he just sends you off to make it better on your own. I remember during rehearsals for Macbeth with the inimitable Philip Goodwin, Michael said something to the effect of 'You two seem eager to explore all of the possibilities for this scene, so why don't you do that and bring back what you find.' That's what we did."
A hallmark of the Shakespeare Theatre productions under Kahn's leadership has been their inclusive nature, thoughtful exploration of complex characters and themes, and dazzling ability to revitalize classic works. The Oresteia is no different.
"One of the things that make this production unique is Michael's use of the chorus, traditionally played by a group of actors speaking as one voice. But here he has individuated the voices to add a sense of immediacy in telling this ancient story," says Carey. "I think audiences will be captivated from start to finish!"
In addition to being captivated, Curran says she hopes The Oresteia is the type of play that leaves audiences with more questions than answers.
"I hope it's the kind of story that, days after seeing it, people find that they are still investigating their own ideas of what is right and wrong, and still asking themselves, how are we complicit, what are our responsibilities to ourselves and our systems, in a society whose leaders have committed, or are committing atrocities? And finally asking, is there is an alternative to retributive justice that we can not only just live with, but that we can nurture," says Curran.
Thirty-three years and thirty-three seasons have passed since Kahn became Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Being that this is Washington, it is hard not to bring up the "L" word - Legacy. Few artistic directors have had such impact on their city and their art as Kahn.
"As far as I can tell, Michael's legacy will be putting Shakespeare in Washington, DC on the map. There were at one time four Shakespeare theaters in Washington! He made it a town eager to embrace the Bard with dynamic and thought-provoking productions that always had a message for today's audience. He single handedly revitalized the 7th Street corridor with the move to the Lansburgh and gave a boost to other theaters to renovate and/or make a move downtown. The Harman Center is, of course, the crown jewel," says Dorn.
Allen adds, "I'm not an overly sentimental person but there is a feeling that this is an event, like a rite of passage. Michael has assembled a first rate ensemble to tell this tale and there is certainly a feeling in the room that we're all part of his passing of the torch to a new captain."
Over the next two months friends and thespians alike will gather to celebrate Kahn. The Shakespeare Theatre will hold Michael Kahn & Friends: Off the Record, a fitting Washington title if there ever was one, on May 15 and June 3. Both events will feature Kahn and veterans of past productions reminiscing about different aspects of his tenure.
However, for those hoping to see Kahn in his element, you have one last chance with The Oresteia. After that, well, this quote from Romeo & Juliet seems most appropriate, "Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again."
The Oresteia runs from April 30 thru June 2 at the Shakespeare Theatre's Sidney Harman Hall - 610 F St NW, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets please click here.