The Shakespeare Theatre has gotten very good at turning out productions like Don Carlos. So good, in fact, that it’s getting difficult to tell them apart. King John’s throne appears in King Phillip’s court and the set from Mourning Becomes Electra is reconstructed for Don Carlos. Sure, they’ve put a few novel twists on the Bard’s canon (Timon lost his nest egg on 1980s Wall Street, Richard II held court in 1930s England) and placed one solid production after another before the uncritical Washington audience, but no one at the Shakespeare Theatre has taken the initiative to serve up something truly artistic, something truly compelling. It’s beginning to get boring.
Classical conventionality hangs as heavily on the current production, Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos, as it has on its predecessors. Nicely dressed actors step out onto a nicely lit stage, sit on nicely painted chairs, deliver their lines and return backstage through the doorframes of nicely constructed plywood walls. It’s all quite quaint, but it’s not exhilarating theatre.
What Don Carlos lacks in conceptual inspiration, it makes up for in talent. The cast list reads like a veritable hit parade of the Shakespeare Theatre’s best and brightest: Ted van Griethuysen assumes a kingly air as Philip II, Enid Graham radiates queenly virtue and Robert Sella (returning after a three-year hiatus) cleverly executes his portrayal of the title character. He handles Carlos’ affinity for his mother-in-law??all the while playing on Oedipal allusions??with skill, leading his character along the trajectory from pathetic to poignant. As Carlos’ closest compadre, the Marquis of Posa, Andrew Long delivers one of the most sophisticated performances of his tenure at the Shakespeare Theatre. Long matches Sella’s wonderfully displayed range of emotions without lapsing into the monotonous blather that characterized so many of his previous roles.
The secondary actors don’t fare nearly as well. Floyd King’s dramatic turn as the courtier Domingo is less than stellar, and the dull drone he affects only causes him to recede further into the backdrop than his minor part consigns him. As the plotting Princess Eboli, Elizabeth Long delivers a decidedly sub-par performance. Shyly putting forth each gesture and each word, she seems to lack the force of her artistic convictions and fails to find a consistent character in the princess. The role of Eboli simply begs for an actor who isn’t afraid to have a little fun with her character’s fall from grace, and Long doesn’t seem up to the challenge.
As is typical of the Shakespeare Theatre, no expense seems to have been spared on the costume budget. Designer Robert Perdziola’s dresses sweep elegantly across the stage, gold embroidery adorns every courtly collar and the heels of shiny black leather boots click lightly on the floor. Yards of black velvet envelop the actors, injecting the blank white space of the set with an ominous, funereal aura. Amidst the black, in a rare burst of color, Princess Eboli’s impending treachery manifests itself in the form of a long red panel sewn on the front of her dress.
The highly political nature of the play, replete with dire warnings about the dangers of autocratic rule, coupled with Schiller’s didactic approach to theatre, makes Don Carlos an appropriate, if slightly ironic, selection for a post-inauguration Washington.
Director Michael Kahn could have had little concrete knowledge of the direction of American politics when selecting the season last year, but the coincidence of the Bush family succession to the seat of national power in D.C. and Don Carlos’ tragic tale of promised ascendancy must surely have been a pleasant surprise. The textual association of the powerful authority figure King Philip and the would-be successor Don Carlos makes this performance a fitting theatrical piece for performance in a city where politics and partisanship too often dominate the intellectual discourse.
So, in the final analysis, the Shakespeare Theatre is pardoned for the recent run of run-of-the-mill shows??Don Carlos included??but only in a strictly Clintonian sense. On paper (this one, to be exact), there is absolution. The banal Washington crowd doesn’t require much more than comfy seats, $45 tickets and an adjacent street lined with decent restaurants to feel as though they’ve found themselves a truly enjoyable evening at the theatre. But in an artistic and highly public sense, the Shakespeare Theatre is guilty as previously charged. And $7,375 worth of coffee tables and chairs don’t even enter the equation.