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Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! The perfect blend of DC entertainment is here!

Top Row (L-R): Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, Judge Amit Mitha; Middle Row (L-R): Judge Joshua Deahl, Judge Thomas B. Griffith, Marshal Pamela Talkin; Bottom Row (L-R): Makan Delrahim, Andrew Weissmann

It's hard to think about Shakespeare Theatre Company's Mock Trial program as anything other than an encapsulation of every nerdy delight in the DC community. It's a blend of legal insight, politics, current events, pop culture, and - of course - theatre.

For those unfamiliar with this delightful local tradition, STC has an affinity group, the Bard Association, that works to engage lawyers and others in the legal field with the theatre community. Members of the Bard Association participate in networking, workshops, and, since 1994, the charming Mock Trial Series, which ties theatre to modern law practice. The Mock Trial Series draws a bench of DC Judicial royalty (boasting members of DC and Federal courts, including members of the US Supreme Court, among its ranks) and explores the legal questions raised in STC performances, ranging from trials for Hamlet and The Oresteia's Electra, to determinations over whether wrongful deaths occurred in Romeo & Juliet or negligence was a factor in Peter Pan and Wendy. Counsel from the District's top law firms write briefs outlining their character clients' stances, and argue the case before this panel of respected judges with a theatrical twist. The pandemic may have altered much about the theatre world in the last year, but STC has managed to adapt its beloved program to embrace a virtual performance and audience, thanks to the incredible work of Shakespeare Theatre Company's Audio/Video Supervisor, Gordon Nimmo-Smith.

This spring's scenario is based on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. For those who, like me, haven't seen the play in over a decade, STC provides ample opportunity for the audience to reacquaint themselves with the play and its characters. Ahead of the Mock Trial, the scenario and briefs from both parties provide enough background to fill in the play as well as set the scene for the trial itself. For those who don't want to do a homework assignment before seeing the show, moderators Abbe David Lowell (Chair of the Bard Association) and Hannah Yelland (Queen Hermione in STC's previous production of The Winter's Tale) provide a Winter's Tale 101, as well as the background for the trial, at the start of the performance. (As an aside, I strongly recommend reading the briefs for the Table of Authorities in Paulina's petition alone - my favorite case cited was Leontes v. Four Seasons Leeching and Necromancy.)

After the introduction, Marshal for the Court, Marshal Pamela Talkin (ret. Marshal of the Supreme Court of the United States) calls the court into session and the audience is introduced to the Supreme Court of Sicily: Presiding is Justice Stephen G. Breyer (Supreme Court of the United States); the rest of the bench consists of Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod (US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit) Judge Amit P. Mehta (US District Court for the District of Columbia) Judge Joshua Deahl (District of Columbia Court of Appeals) and Judge Thomas B. Griffith (ret. US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia). Once in session, the judges listen to arguments put forward by Paulina's counsel, Andrew Weissmann (Jenner & Block, LLP), and question him about the case; then they do the same with Leontes and Hermione's counsel, Makan Delrahim (University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School).

While this all sounds fairly straightforward, what makes this such a unique performance is that this is all done with an air of pure fun. This is structured as a real trial, where our petitioners just happen to be characters from a Shakespeare play, but the judges and lawyers on screen (cleverly displayed with presiding Justice Breyer on top with the rest of the bench just below him, and the counselors at the bottom of the screen with close-ups on specific speakers) bring an element of Puckish humor to the performance - they smirk and ask questions about the characters that tie them to modern-day events, use filters (intentionally and unintentionally), and make their arguments in verse. I'll admit that I can sometimes be a stickler about modern and colloquial references being added to classical work; modernizing classic pieces or adopting anachronisms can be incredibly tricky. However, STC is something of an expert in this, so it shouldn't be a surprise that they pull it off. In truth, the allusions to modern political events could easily have felt like overkill, but the pure glee emitting from these elite legal minds as they reference Cancun, The Real Housewives, and Lawyer Cat makes the production absolute fun. Weissmann in particular was a standout for presenting his arguments in the form of limericks, and Judge Mehta's impatience for the trial to end was as entertaining as Judge Elrod's musical performance. Even references to the Black Plague and questions about whether Queen Hermione's isolation was really all that problematic - all clear allusions to the current pandemic - manage to be amusing. After all, even amidst the mental angst of the one-year anniversary of lockdown, it's impossible to keep a smile off your face when Justice Breyer is cheerfully equating the "duly appointed Oracle" to his demanding dog and quoting Shakespeare and The Beatles.

Theatre fans everywhere can appreciate the analyses of The Winter's Tale and the delight that comes through in this production, and there's a particular joy here for those who love the law or unique spins on old stories. But there's something quintessentially unique to DC about retelling and considering these stories through a political and legal lens. And, in this production, STC manages to hit all these marks in a way that's thoughtful, engaging, and a fun experience for both the participants and the viewers.

And, in that spirit of fun, I'll end this the way any piece related to The Winter's Tale should end: Exit, pursued by a bear.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's Virtual Mock Trial, A Winter's Tale of Marital Woe: Who's to Blame?, is available to stream through April 11. Tickets are available for purchase on the STC website for $20 per household, and grant access for three days. Please note this is listed as an "Encore" performance, as it is a recording of the live event on March 11.

Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

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