Community Palette

Michael Kahn; Leader, Innovator, Icon, Friend

July 30, 2019

I have been fortunate over the years living in Washington, DC to meet and become friends with many incredible people. Leaders in the LGBTQ+ movement, politicians, and thought leaders in many areas. But one person stands out among those who I have met. He is a leader, innovator, icon and now friend; that person is Michael Kahn, Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC). 

At the end of this month Michael is retiring after thirty-three years in Washington as one of the most influential people in the DC theater scene. His legacy includes the incredible STC which he has dedicated years to building. But it’s more. Michael is credited with being a major impetus to the growth of downtown DC which began when he took the audacious step of moving the theater to the Lansburgh on 7th street in downtown DC. Today that theater and the new Harman Hall are part of his amazing legacy and a thriving downtown. STC has produced and hosted more than 150 productions and entertained more than 2.5 million audience members. Since 1986, STC has won a Tony award, 104 Helen Hayes Awards and earned 438 nominations. 

I first met Michael at Java House coffee shop in Dupont Circle. He would come sit and read which he does to this day. He would often work on issues related to the current play he was directing or helping other directors with their projects. Michael became a friend. We go to the same gym, FIT Personal Training on 17th street, and he introduced me to many of his friends over the years. One of those friends is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She officiated at Michael and his husband Charles’ wedding and I had the chance to sit next to her and chat at an STC event. Michael has a lot of friends the rest of us mortals can only read about and look at from afar. He was recently in England and posted a picture on his FB page having lunch with Dame Judith Dench and Dame Eileen Atkins. Oh to be a fly on the wall at that luncheon. 

In return I introduced Michael to members of my morning coffee group and he would join us when he got up early enough which for a theatre person who lives a late night life wasn’t all the time. Everyone enjoyed listening to his stories and I started arranging theater parties to the plays he directed. He was enormously generous with his time and suggested after the plays he would invite the cast to join us for cocktails. This became a regular thing for many years.  I would organize the theatre party and he would invite the cast. I found out from some cast members it was more of a command performance for them when the esteemed Kahn invited them. But it turned out they and we all enjoyed ourselves at these events. We continued this tradition right up to Michael’s last play at the Shakespeare, The Oresteia.  Through these events our coffee group got the opportunity to meet some amazing actors including Nancy Robinette, Holly Twyford, Tom Story, Michael Urie, and most recently Josiah Bania and Kelley Curran.  

We attended plays we otherwise may not have gone to see had Michael not directed them. I learned that a brilliant director like Michael working with talented actors can make any theater experience exciting. 

In his recent oped for the Washington Post What the theater has taught me about Washington he shares his love for the city.  Michael writes “Over the years, however, I’ve seen this city change its character dramatically. A city that hosted fewer than 10 theaters in the early 1980s now has more than 90 professional companies, alongside opera, ballet, musical acts of all kinds and a thriving food scene. Aspiring actors and writers used to leave D.C. looking for work; now they move to the District to make careers. They study here, and they stay here. Theaters pay a living wage and do an enormous diversity of work, raising the level of artistry to one of the highest in the nation.” Michael is responsible as much as anyone else for all that. 

Each year the Shakespeare Theatre holds a Gala and presents the WILL award to a deserving actor. Through Michael I would get an invitation to attend a brunch prior to the event at the home of the British ambassador. At these events Michael graciously introduced me to his friends who included the likes of Chelsea Clinton, Ian McKellen, who joked about how appropriate it was that he had been invited by the Ambassador to stay in what was normally the ‘Queen’s bedroom’; Annette Benning and her husband Warren Beatty and Elizabeth McGovern. At one of the brunches I had the chance to chat with the late Mickey Rooney and his wife. Rooney seemed quite out of it and not quite sure why he was there. He was scheduled to be a surprise guest at the Gala performance that evening doing Puck’s soliloquy from a Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.  I mentioned this to Michael who came over and got really concerned and thought he may have to make other arrangements for the evening. I sat in the audience for the show wondering who Michael got to replace Rooney. Then the curtain opened and lo and behold there was Rooney, dressed in his tuxedo and he performed brilliantly without missing a word. We got to see vintage Mickey Rooney. 

I will miss my conversations with Michael at the Java House when he moves more permanently to his home in New York. Like so many of us he came to the District for a job and stayed because he fell in love with the city and in his case the city fell in love with him. I recently kidded him that maybe like Cher he will do many comebacks and if we are very lucky we have not yet seen the last play directed by Michael Kahn in Washington, DC. 

This column first appeared in the Washington Blade.

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Norwegian GETAWAY Baltic Cruise: Part V

July 18, 2019

My nine day Baltic cruise on the Norwegian GETAWAY was all my friends and I hoped it would be. Every stop was a place I hadn’t been before and the piece-de-resistance was the chance to spend two days in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Those two days didn’t disappoint.

The ship sailed from and returned to Copenhagen and we spent two wonderful days there before boarding. We took a canal cruise, walked for hour’s window shopping, people watching and eating some great Danish pastry. On the recommendation of a friend who works at the State Department I booked a dinner reservation at NIMB Brasserie overlooking Tivoli gardens for our last evening. We ordered the four course set menu that came with wine matched to each course and began with a champagne toast. Three hours later we all agreed it was one of the best meals we ever ate.

NCL GETAWAY (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) NCL GETAWAY

On boarding the GETAWAY we got a nice bonus. It had recently undergone a spectacular total refurbishment. Much of the carpeting, floor tile and marble reminded me of the beautiful NCL BLISS which I had been on during its inaugural Panama Canal cruise. The specialty restaurants all looked very upscale and the theater had new seats and lighting enhancing the experience when watching the shows. 

I arranged in advance to meet with General Manager Mario Markovic, until recently his title was Hotel Director, and got a rundown on what I could expect on the cruise. I had some added fun when I spent time with the Cruise Director, Vincent Teschel, who clearly loves his job and after listening to passengers talk it’s clear both are doing their jobs superbly. 

Our first stop was in Warnemunde, Germany and my travel companions spent the day in Berlin. Having been there before I spent a couple of hours wandering the port town which is really quite beautiful. Then headed back to the ship and went to the well-equipped gym which I had all to myself. We all met again for the LGBTQ+ happy hour scheduled each evening for the Sunset Bar. There weren’t many other gay people there the first night but as the cruise went on more and more showed up for the scheduled happy hour each evening. We were served by a bartender we knew from a previous cruise who took good care of us. We had dinner reservations at Cagney’s steakhouse, one of the specialty restaurants. Service was great and the filet mignon was excellent. One thing I have learned is dessert often looks better than it tastes.  

Day three was a pleasant surprise. We booked a three hour tour of Tallinn, Estonia but it was the two hours we walked around the old town which made us realize how beautiful Tallinn, a walled city with much of the wall still standing, is.

Nobel Prize Museum (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) Nobel Prize Museum

Then on to Saint Petersburg, Russia for me the highlight of the cruise. We had arranged for a private driver and guide for four of us and they met us each day at 9:00am on the pier and returned us to the ship at 6:00pm. The Hermitage where we spent hours the first day is incredible. Catherine the Great put together an amazing art collection and today there are 3 million pieces in the Hermitage’s collection. From the grand staircase to so many of the rooms in the original palace there is gold guilt everywhere. The intricate inlaid wood floors throughout are quite amazing. We arranged to see the two separate treasuries, the diamond and the gold, and the treasures there were mind boggling. Diamond and precious stone encrusted sabers and watches and crowns of gold. Many gifts to the Czars some from archaeological digs over the years. For what remained of the day we toured a number of churches and parks and went on a driving tour of the city. Our guide was great and gave us a running history lesson.

Vasa Ship (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) Vasa Ship

Day two began with a trip to the orthodox synagogue which we had asked to see. We arrived while services were going on. It is a very beautiful Moorish style building. The plan was to spend the afternoon at the Peterhof Palace but first we went on the Metro and took it two stops where our driver again met us. The Metro is unbelievable with sculptures and mosaics in each of the stations. Then it was off to Peterhof about a forty-five minute ride from the city. The Palace was built after Peter the Great saw Versailles and having been to Versailles I think he out-did even that. The fountains and gardens are incredible and the palace rooms are so opulent in some ways you understand why Russians overthrew the Czars who lived like that while the peasants were starving. But as a museum there is nothing like it. 

From Russia we sailed to Helsinki, a beautiful City and then to Stockholm where the Vasa Museum, the wooden ship reclaimed and rebuilt with original timber after it sank in 1628, is worth the trip alone. I hope to go back to both cities one day.  Then it was back to Copenhagen and my nine day Baltic cruise on the Norwegian GETAWAY was over. It was all I had hoped for and recommend it to everyone.

Helsinki Harbor (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) Helsinki Harbor

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Michael Urie Hamlet For The Ages at Shakespeare Theatre

July 15, 2019

The king of Denmark has been murdered and his son Hamlet comes home from school to deal with all the craziness of his family’s situation. Some think he is going mad, and this is a madcap play with plenty of humor. His school friends and family are all spying on each other as they try to figure out what is going on.  Casting Michael Urie as Hamlet may not have seemed the thing to do when Michael Kahn first did it but Urie has proven to be a Hamlet for the ages. Urie has been called a brilliant comedic actor and we all know him from his roles in ‘Ugly Betty’, his brilliant one-man show ‘Buyer and Cellar’ at the STC, and his recent rave reviews in New York for ‘Torch Song’.  But Kahn said he always wanted to do Hamlet with Urie since having him as a student at Julliard. When I first saw Urie in the role it was immediately evident it was an inspired choice. Just listening to him deliver the soliloquy “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!” you knew he was going to be brilliant in the role. 

Madeleine Potter and Michael Urie (Photo by: Scott Suchman) Madeleine Potter and Michael Urie

In his return to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual FREE for ALL Urie has only gotten better in the role if that is possible. The play this time is being directed by Craig Baldwin, who was Michael Kahn’s assistant director in the original production, and he keeps a steady hand. 

Kahn has said about his original production “As I return to this play, I’ve found myself thinking about its complexities—public and private, political and familial—not in new ways, necessarily, but with an altered center of gravity in the world of 2018. First, we must remember that, beneath the diplomatic emissaries and complicated political plotting, Hamlet is at root an intimate family drama about a son deeply in mourning for his dead father and disturbed by his mother’s sudden remarriage. The family relationships that lie at the heart of Hamlet are crucial to the piece.”

So if you keep Kahn’s thoughts in mind when you go you will revel in this modern day Hamlet understanding it stays true to what Shakespeare wrote. From the security desk and computer screens in the opening scene to the smartphones the cast uses to text each other, it all works. If you have seen or read Hamlet you will get insights into the play you might not have had before; if you are new to Hamlet you will become a fan and understand how great a play it is. . For those who question the modern dress I would remind you when it was originally performed it was also in modern dress of that time. 

Joining Urie again is a star powered cast including Madeleine Potter (Gertrude), Hamlet’s mother, who shines with a commanding presence particularly in act two. Keith Baxter is back again as (Ghost/1st Player/Gravedigger), the oldest member of the cast by far, reminds you with every scene he is in why he has had such a great and long career.  Federico Rodriguez (Horatio) is a winning friend to Hamlet and Robert Joy (Polonius) again returns to STC after his brilliant performance as King Charles in Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III. He is equally brilliant here. In this production Paul Deo, Jr. is a totally believable Laertes. The entire company do themselves proud. 

Keith Baxter and Michael Urie (Photo by: Scott Suchman) Keith Baxter and Michael Urie

This production is again enhanced by all those incredibly talented people behind the scenes including scenic designer John Coyne, costume designer Jess Goldstein, lighting Yi Zhao, and sound and original music Broken Chord. Together they and the cast make this production of Hamlet a memorable night in the theater no one should miss.  

Each summer, with the help of a group of community-minded sponsors, the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) presents two weeks of FREE performances of a Shakespearean classic. Hamlet will be at Sidney Harman Hall through July 21st.

Get your FREE tickets here and enter the lottery. The online lottery is open for entries between 12:01 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. the day PRIOR to the performance you are interested in attending. All entrants are notified via email of their ticket status about an hour after the lottery closes. Two tickets per person and all seating is general admission. Or you can just get in line. Every day STC will make at least 200 tickets available to the public in our ticket line at Sidney Harman Hall beginning two hours prior to curtain. Limit is two tickets per person and all seating is general admission. Remember to get there early! The line usually starts forming about four hours before curtain up. Either way you do it know you will have a great time in the theater.  

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