Ken Ludwig is a DC local and internationally acclaimed playwright who has had numerous hits on Broadway, in London’s West End, and throughout the world. He has won two Laurence Olivier Awards (England’s highest theater honor), two Tony Award nominations, two Helen Hayes Awards, and an Edgar Award. His work has been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Bristol Old Vic, and his plays have been performed in over thirty countries in more than twenty languages. His new book is called How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.
I spoke with Ken about his love of Shakespeare, the Bard’s history in DC, and choosing to make this city his creative home.
Joanna Castle Miller: How did you first fall in love with Shakespeare?
The cast of Twelfth Night dances as Feste (Louis Butelli) plays his ukulele. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Viola and Sebastian’s ship wrecks at the opening of Folger Theatre’s Twelfth Night in a spectacle brimming with theatricality and grace.
The brief scene sets us in the early 1900s – at the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, to be exact; and while the rest of the production may not hold up to its level of fury and mysticism, Twelfth Night is nonetheless a whimsical celebration of love told with musicality and charm.
Shakespeare’s beloved comedy of gender reversal, star-crossed love, and prideful folly fits almost seamlessly into the turn-of-the-century world, where roles are well-determined through both gender and class.
I moved to DC (okay, NoVa to be exact) from New York via my hometown of Memphis, and love the fact that here I can get moonshine and fried pickles but still have winter sports and a subway system.
I love that DC is misunderstood and can play the victim. The city as a whole doesn’t deserve the conniving (or worse! boring) name it gets in the debates. On the same avenues as the “Washington elite” you’ll meet incredible actors, vocalists, writers and some of the most innovative designers and techies in the business – not political elites, just gifted go-getters who are passionate about their work and more creative than 10 Congresses.
I love that DC is filled with activists who volunteer their rare free time to stand up for things that matter; and I love that people come to DC from all over the world to make their voices heard.
While most of DC’s indie-music listeners were reliving past glories watching Superchunk over at 9:30 Club on Friday night, a decent-sized and enthusiastic crowd were dancing the night away to the two of indie-rock’s new breed: junk-techno technicians Holy Fuck and noise-pop purveyors No Age. This show was one of the more interesting stylistic pairings in recent memory with both bands offering radically different sounds while occupying the same altitude of on-the-rise status.
Both Holy Fuck and No Age are touring in support of their third albums, which technically makes them both indie upper class-men, but their noise aesthetic and DIY approach to everything has possibly held them back from tapping the meteoric-rise success model that is being employed by their more pop-oriented peers. In other words, No Age and Holy Fuck are relying less on internet buzz and more on old fashioned word-of-mouth to garner a fan base. Something that No Age should be receiving in spades if they continue to perform at the level they did on Friday night.
David Manis as Subtle, Jeff Biehl as Abel Drugger and Michael Milligan as Face
in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, directed by Michael Kahn.
Photo by Scott Suchman.
I can’t speak for any other reviewer, but for me the most enjoyable reviews to write are the ones where I really enjoyed a production but still have some minor quibbles. A little Monday-morning quarterbacking is fun for everyone if you don’t take it too seriously and aren’t a jerk about it. Perfect productions are less fun because there’s less to say about them. Quality theater involves a very subtle energy that’s difficult – if not impossible – to convey to a reader. Bad theater is less fun still because you have to be a special flavor of jerk to enjoy smack-talking someone’s baby, and a lot of people put a lot of energy into putting something on stage.
The least enjoyable kind of theater to write about is the kind that’s always puzzling to see, considering how many people come to it with so much passion: the simply okay, unengaging and largely forgettable production.
Esther Williamson as Isabella, and Kimberly Gilbert as Angelo
Photo by Kristin Holodak
“Measure for Measure” could be described in simplest terms as a “he said, she said” kind of play. When fellow author Don shared his thoughts on Taffety Punk’s current production with me, it fascinated me that we had two disparate views. So why not mimic the play’s conceit and split the review?
Before we go into it, plot please? The leader of the free world gives it all up temporarily for some meditation practice, leaving a stuck-up prig in charge as a test. The prig goes to town cleaning up the junkies and whores, jailing a reprobate with a hot virgin as a sister. Virgin begs for her brother’s life, prig will give it if she sleeps with him. All hell breaks loose with the leader working the marionette strings behind the scenes.
It’s tough to organize this review. Put marginally less briefly, this production of King Lear pretty much sacrifices the story in order to wallow around in physical violence, partially demolished sets, thrusting and grunting and marital rape. It has a lot of visual appeal with regards to the sets and costuming but that’s not enough to recommend it.
That’s not really the fault of anyone on stage. With one significant exception every one of the actors does a nice job, though only Jonno Roberts as Edmund really puts in an notable performance. Others suffer from some odd choices that may or may not be their fault, such as the painful sing-song that Joaquin Torres uses when voicing Edgar’s alter-ego Tom.
The truly offensive content – and there’s a fair amount – likely all can be laid at the feet of the director, Robert Falls. If you’re going to go anyway you may want to skip the rest of this review, as it’ll be filled with spoilers for how several scenes are staged. That it’s possible for there to be a spoiler for a four-hundred year old work is an interesting fact in and of itself, I think, but not a reason to subject yourself to this production.
Who are we kidding? Of course I can still find something to say.
Seriously – while I don’t agree with Marks across the board, I do agree with him on the big points: the show is great and worth your time. The translation is so well done that this 500 year old play has dialog that feels fresh while still being from its own time. David Turner is fan-freaking-tastic and riotously funny. The show’s a winner and you should go see it.
So what else? I’m not as thrilled with Michael Hayden’s Teodoro as he is, but he fills the role well enough. Maybe that’s just my feelings about the character, a man who is almost exclusively reactive through the whole piece. It’s probably the one problem the excellent translation simply couldn’t address and the one thing that’s going to be a little odd for modern audiences. There’s not a hint that Teodoro has ever thought of Diana romantically before he catches her eye and she starts to drop anvil-like hints on his head, yet it completely derails his existing relationship. It’s not an insurmountable problem but it doesn’t give Hayden a lot of room to excel. Continue reading →
The biggest complaint I have with STC’s production of Twelfth Night has nothing to do with the actual production they put on, so I’m going to just get it out of the way here and move on to praising them. Why in the name of all that’s holy wasn’t this the production they chose to do an all-male version of, rather than Romeo and Juliet? Here’s a story that contains gender-bending, and an (albeit brief) moment of a character confronted with the confusion of feeling romantic love for someone he believes to be his own gender. There’s interesting ground to cover there, as opposed to stunt casting that does little more than say “hey, check out how they used to do it four centuries ago!”
The only problem with that idea is that if I’d been at that production I wouldn’t have gotten to enjoy this one. The actors are all excellent, the set is beautiful, and Director Rebecca Taichman manages a flow and rhythm that pulls you along enjoyably. There’s one odd choice in the second half that took me out of the moment a few times, but it comes and goes quickly enough. There’s only one aspect that stands out notably and delightfully so. Continue reading →
A true and exact relation of the late prodigious earthquake & eruption of Mount Ætna. London, 1669
The Folger Shakespeare Library recently opened their newest exhibit Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper on September 25. The exhibit runs through January 31, 2009 and is free to the public. I recently had a delightful Q&A session with Jason Peacey, one of the exhibit’s curators and a Lecturer in History at University College London, and Amy Arden at the Folger here in DC.
Give us an idea what a visitor to the Folger’s latest exhibit should expect.
Breaking News follows the story of the newspaper from England to America. Visitors will see many things that they recognize, from the kinds of topics covered – politics, natural disasters, extreme religious sects, crime – to the actual format of newspapers from this period with headlines, columns, and serialized issues. One thing that may surprise people is how much of a role wartime reporting played in launching the newspaper; during the 1640s civil war raged in England between the supporters of the king (known as Royalists) and the supporters of Oliver Cromwell and Parliament (the Parliamentarians). Both sides produced their own accounts of the conflict and printed newspapers in an attempt to sway public opinion in their favor. It was a ripe time to be a journalist!
Rahaleh Nassri (Romeo) and Kelsey Grouge (Juliet), photo by Teresa Castracane
Taffety Punk Theatre Company sure has guts. The marketing for their all-female “answer” to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s all-male production of Romeo & Juliet had me instantly intrigued: “An hour shorter, a fraction of the cost, and 100% more women. We will totally crush them!” Really, with that kind of chutzpah shown by director Lise Bruneau, how could I not go? And only $10 bucks!
I wasn’t disappointed.
This is a very stripped down production that manages within limited budget and extremely tight space constraints to hit most of the passion points of the play. It’s like watching “The Outsiders” do Shakespeare, using very contemporary speech patterns and body language that help to freshly illuminate the text.
Two outstanding performances in this vein are Rahaleh Nassri as Romeo and Kimberly Gilbert as Mercutio. I swear every time Nassri came on, I thought I heard Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Possess Your Heart” – so perfectly did she embody that particular style of hipster boy the girls have a crush on. Oh, he may start out as a bit of a player, but once he’s hooked he’s yours forever. It’s a brilliant bit of naturalistic acting and she’s completely believable as a lovestruck teen. Continue reading →
Halberd, dated 1611. Courtesy Higgins Armory Museum
Just in case you’re unaware, the Folger Shakespeare Library is now weaponized.
Currently running in a limited engagement, the Folger presents Now Thrive the Armorers:
Arms and Armor in Shakespeare, an exhibit where you come face-to-face with “a wide-ranging collection of armor and weaponry dating from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries.” For you non-history types, that’s a critical period in arms development, as the nature of warfare across Europe underwent rapid change to keep up with evolving technologies and societal change.
The exhibit features primarily pieces from the Higgins Armory Museum, the largest collection of medieval arms and armor outside of Europe, along with several pieces from the Folger’s collection. According to Amy Arden, a Folger representative I was able to talk to, the “exhibition centers on Shakespearean plays in which arms and armor figure prominently while also exploring ‘real world’ weapons and fighting techniques from the period.”