New Theater Readies 'Much Ado'

WHEN Kelly McGillis strolled in, she almost upstaged the press conference about the Shakespeare Theatre's move from its minute gem of a Tudor theater on Capitol Hill to a brand-new downtown theater smelling of fresh paint.

Ms. McGillis, who plays Beatrice in the Shakespeare Theatre's upcoming production of "Much Ado About Nothing," wore a black slouch hat pulled down over her blond hair, a black top, a long black hacking jacket that reached to the top of her showgirl legs, and long gray tights tucked into black lace-up leather boots. The effect was not so much Shakespearean as Garboesque.

The conference swirled around her as director Michael Kahn introduced a stage full of actors, crew, coaches, and troupe members from drapers and wigmakers to publicity people.

"Welcome to the second smallest theater in the world," said Mr. Kahn. The smallest theater of course was the one they left behind at the Folger Shakespeare Library with its beamed ceilings, enormous stage pillars around which scenery had to be designed, and its seating capacity of just over 200.

The new Shakespeare Theatre at the Lansburgh Building seats 441 and expands the season for a larger audience. Last season at the Folger, the repertory group played to 73,000 audience members, which was 103 percent of capacity, and reportedly turned away thousands. Now the company is moving into the newest theater in town, the first since Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was built 20 years ago.

As the cast and crew for "Much Ado" gathered on stage, you could see the fresh plaster, the scaffolding, the dark catwalk where lights were yet to be put in, and hear burps and blares from the communications system or an occasional fire alarm. The theater will not be ready to open until Feb. 25, when "Much Ado" premieres.

Moving from the Folger to the Lansburgh has been a three-act drama in itself, since it's mid-season, and the Shakespeare Theatre is just winding up performances of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan," planning its next season, and rehearsing "Much Ado which is hardly a play with minimal sets and costumes. It has a cast of 23, sets depicting Messina, Italy, by Derek McLane, as well as costumes by Martin Pakledinaz - both inspired by late 19th-century Italian Impressionistic paintings.

"A lot of what we're going to get is a little bit of that Mafioso feeling coming across with all that black" in sets and costumes, says Kahn.

The meeting is sometimes a merry one, with cast, crew, and press sipping orange juice and engulfing bagels and doughnuts. Then the cast does a first reading. When it comes time for questions, I ask Ms. McGillis to explain the contrast between her movie roles ("Witness,Top Gun") and her theater roles in "The Merchant of Venice,Twelfth Night," and "Much Ado" with the Shakespeare Theatre.

"I think that the mediums are different," she says. "Obviously, when you're doing the classics, especially Shakespeare, you have the form to fill, and you have to be true to that form. You cannot ignore that form, and you have to follow the verses of poetry. With the modern cinema, you have a lot more freedom, I think, especially in the capacity of language."

John Selby, her co-star Benedick in the play, who has done everything from the American Shakespeare Festival to a long run on TV's "Falcon Crest," had earlier reminded the press that TV actors leap at the idea of working with Kahn and the Shakespeare Theatre. McGillis added that she had asked Kahn for her roles in "Twelfth Night" and "Much Ado."

Kahn was asked if the new theater had an acoustics problem, because some of the people on stage were having trouble hearing one another. "I suppose that there could be a problem," he said, "but we've been assured that that has really been taken care of."

The Lansburgh, built on the site of a famous old department store, is located in the heart of Washington's new 7th Street arts district. The Gunwyn Company, selected in a national competition by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, chose its affiliate Graham Gund Architects to design the facility, which eventually will house not just the theater but 385 rental apartments, restaurants, and other amenities.

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