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Review: Will on the Hill and Far Away at Shakespeare Theatre Company

If Shakespeare himself had had Page’s stage presence I doubt Burbage would have gotten all the good roles.

Review: Will on the Hill and Far Away at Shakespeare Theatre Company
Cast members of Will on the Hill and Far Away.
Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

"What's past is prologue" Prospero says in The Tempest, but when the present passes into the past what's left is Will on the Hill and Far Away, the earnest and frequently successful effort by Congressmen to do Shakespeare funny. In this annual exercise, designed to raise funds for arts education, members of both Houses, as well as various other political luminaries (Washington is crawling with them), put themselves in preposterous situations which magically turn out well, just as characters in the Bard's plays often do.

In this year's effort, a soufflé cooked up by writer/actor/musician Nat Cassidy, the Hon. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D.-Fla) is chairing a Special Senate Committee on William Shakespeare: What's the Deal with That Guy? (Ranking minority member: The Hon. Beth Van Duyne, R. Tex) The Committee, thus, has a broad mandate. As the panel questions a selection of Shakespeare experts (Drew Lichtenberg, Colleen Kennedy and Ashley Buster), an evil-sounding buzzer pervades the room. Hackers! Soon a mad, or at least annoyed, scientist (Yonatan Gebeyehu) appears, accompanied by an appropriately dim assistant (Christopher Michael Richardson). This academic assessment of the Bard's greatness need not go on, he announces, for he has invented a machine will catapult the great man 400 years forward, so he can testify before the Committee himself.

This he does, after a brief misfire involving Geoffrey Chaucer (British M.P. Ian Linddell-Grainger, doing a good job of sounding like he is speaking 14th-century English). The Bard (Patrick Page), however, is impressively vague, answering the Member's questions with rostrums which sound, well, Shakespearian. (In turn, I can't say much for the questions, which mostly involve confusing Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, with the contemporary American actress Ann Hathaway). But, as anyone who has suddenly found herself disappeared from a Zoom call knows, technology is imperfect.

The doctor's machine reverses itself, and members of Congress are suddenly thrust into the pages of Shakespeare's plays. It's no spoiler alert to tell you that they got back to our time without doing damage to any of the stories. You know that already, since Beatrice and Benedick's marriage didn't have a tax rider. But there are plenty of shenanigans along the way, which I dasn't describe here.

This production, like last year's, has the advantage of being on Zoom, which allows STC to assemble a broader base of professional actors than it might if the performance was done live, as it usually has been. Page, a presence here and on Broadway, is a magnificent Bard; if Shakespeare himself had had Page's stage presence I doubt Burbage would have gotten all the good roles. Gregory Woodell is a smart, mean Prospero; I enjoyed him more in his little scene than I've enjoyed most Prosperos in the real play. Tom Story does a delightful bit as Joseph in Taming of the Shrew - the smallest role in the entire canon. Holly Twyford and Felecia Curry reprised their roles from last year's Will/Hill, with Curry's legislative assistant now a Member of Congress in her own right. Jacob Yeh ties up the narrative nicely at the conclusion. There were some stirring cameos - particularly Craig Wallace as King Lear, Kimberly Gilbert as Beatrice, and Harry Hamlin as Gloucester.

How about the Members, and their fellow political celebrities? Should any of them consider throwing over their day jobs, and putting on the actor's tools? Yes, one, but I'll get to that later.

The principal roles, aside from Wasserman-Schultz and Van Duyne, went to anti-tax maven Grover Norquist and The Hon. André Carson (D.-IN) and Senator Roger Wicker (R.-Miss) and The Hon. Gerry Connolly (D.-Va). Generally speaking, if you reach public office you are already a pretty good public speaker, with a clear and articulate voice, and all of the folks in this production are. What really separates a good public speaker from a professional actor is timing; the professional actor knows the exact moment to come in on his line, so that the dialogue sounds fresh and spontaneous, even though it is the 183rd time the actor read that line. That lack of timing identifies the amateur immediately, and the problem is exacerbated when the production is being done via multiple Zoom cameras. Last year's production avoided this problem by giving the nonprofessionals set speeches to read, rather than put them to the test of doing dialogue. This production put a lot of dialogue in a lot of politician's mouths, and the result is -- well, it is short of perfection, although Rep. Peter Welch, of Vermont, is given a nice monologue as the Bear from The Winter's Tale (which, come to think of it, may really be the smallest role in the canon) - and nails it.

I said that I would identify one of the political celebrities who could turn pro, so here it is: Margaret Coons, the adult child of Senator Chris Coons (D.-Del). Margaret Coons played Peter Quince in The Rude Mechanical's rehearsal of Paramus and Thisbe from Midsummer Night's Dream, and was letter-perfect, despite the production's mystifying decision to have various lines read over by different actors after muting the speaker's phone.

The production is broken into three acts, and between each one is a commercial for STC's fundraising drive to bring arts (and particularly the theater arts) into the classrooms of the DMV. This is the way of the world, I suppose, and frankly I would rather watch an endorsement of arts education than I would one of those interminable commercials for medicine that seems to be on every TV show I watch. (They've raised $300,000 so far and will raise more if you get on it.) The medicine commercials invariably end with a list of horrifying side effects, but the only side effect to a donation for STC's arts education program will be -arts education.

You can see Will on the Hill through midnight, June 10,2021 by clicking here.

Running Time: About 60 minutes.

Will on the Hill and Far Away, by Nat Cassidy, directed by Samantha Wyer Bello, assisted by Henery Wyand, featuring Marla Allard, Bianca Amato, Temíday? Amay, Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R. ND), Rep. Don Beyer (D.-Va.) , Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D.-Or.), Rep. Brenden F. Boyle (D.-Pa), Ashley Buster, Rep. André Carson (D.-Ind), Rep. Gerald Connolly (D.-Va), Sen. Chris Coons (D.-Del), Margaret Coons, Felecia Curry, Rep. Ted Deutch (D.-Fl), Rep. Debbie Dingell (D.-Mi), Rep Andrew Garbarino (R.- N.Y.), Zoë Sophia Garcia, Yonatan Gebeyehu, Kimberly Gilbert, Rep. Jennifer González-Colón (R.-P.R.), Harry Hamlin, Chris Jennings, Colleen Kennedy, Drew Lichtenberg, Ian Liddell-Grainger, M.P., Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D. Cal.), Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D.-N.Y.), Rep. Doris Matsui (D.-Cal), Rep. Carol Miller (R.-W.Va), Grover Norquist, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.-D.C.), Patrick Page, Tristan André Parks, Rep. Dean Phillips (D.-Mn), Dame Karen Pierce, Rep. Chellee Pingree (D.-Me), Christopher Michael Richardson, Tony Roach, Rep. David Schweikert (R.-Az), Tom Story, Faran Tahir, Rep. Van Taylor (R.-Tx), Tracie Thoms, Rep. Dina Titus (R.-Nv), Mury Turkel, Holly Twyford, Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R.-Tx.), Craig Wallace, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D.-FL), Rep. Peter Welch (D.-Vt), Sen. Roger Wicker (R.-Ms), Gregory Woodall, and Jacob Yeh. Video designed and edited by Gordon Nimmo-Smith.

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