By Jordy Yager - 04/28/09 05:30 PM EDT
It’s not often that lawmakers on Capitol Hill invent new ways to play the fool.
But after votes next Monday evening, more than a dozen members are planning to sprint across town to the Shakespeare Theater Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, throw on whatever necklaces, robes, hats and wigs they can scrounge up from the wardrobe department and give the performance of their lives in the playhouse’s 16th annual Will on the Hill.
“The most fun part is putting on the fabulous hats and overcoats. They transform you back to another time,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), adding that, this being his third time performing for the event, he doesn’t get stage fright.
This year’s performance, titled “A Midsession Night’s Dream,” centers around a young Senate page who falls asleep during a filibuster and is visited by the ghost of William Shakespeare. Traveling through Washington, the two use Shakespeare’s gift for words and the page’s insider savvy to resolve conflicts, expose hypocrisy and magically transform Washington into a very Shakespearean utopia.
Thankfully, the lawmakers aren’t expected to memorize their lines, written by Peter Byrne. They typically carry a copy of the script on stage with them.
“Oh gosh, I don’t even want to know what it would be like if they had to go off-book and memorize everything,” said Mandy Dickens, a spokeswoman for the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
“We understand that they’re extremely busy and it would be almost impossible for them to memorize everything,” she said. “I think we wouldn’t have anyone participate if we told them they had to memorize everything, so we go through and highlight all of their parts.”
Proceeds of the event, which have steadily grown, will benefit the theater company’s education, artistic and community outreach programs. Just four years ago the event raised less than $90,000; last year it received an unprecedented $250,000.
“I think a lot of our growth has to do with our internal systems,” Dickens said. “We’ve really been trying to brand the event so that whenever someone sees something with ‘Will on the Hill,’ it always looks the same, it always rings the same bells.”
It’s the old favorites, like Stearns and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) — who Dickens said is “really good at hamming it up” — who help the company brand its name with recognizable faces.
Harman and her husband, Sidney — for whom the performance venue is named — are longtime patrons of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and donated $20 million to help build the hall.
Despite a recent whirlwind of controversy surrounding her relationship with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Harman made an appearance — albeit stealthy — at the company’s Welcome to Washington event last week and the veteran thespian is scheduled to appear at Monday’s performance.
“Will on the Hill is an annual thrill and exercise in humility,” said Harman in a statement. “Supporting the local arts community is enormously important to my husband and me.”
Newcomers are splashing onto the scene as well, like Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) who has never done any acting himself but whose children are very talented in the arts, he said. Veteran performer Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) convinced him he should lend his thespian tongue to the evening.
“It’ll be fun,” Perlmutter said. “I think it’d be good if I studied up on my Shakespeare, but the acting will either just come or it won’t. I think I’ll be fine because it’s not something that I plan to take any further.
“I don’t know that any role’s been assigned to me yet,” he said. “Maybe I’m just going to be in the back and be a tree or some part of a curtain or something.”
Other lawmakers scheduled to take the stage include Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), Donna Edwards (D-Md.), Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
But as of last Friday, no roles had been assigned because the cast was still in flux, with some old-hand performers, like Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) — who was professionally trained as an actor — bowing out of the spotlight early.
Hodes did not elaborate on his scheduling conflict. Other lawmakers have hinted that AIPAC’s annual gala, also Monday evening, is preventing them from participating in the Shakespeare play. Stearns said he would likely be rushing to get to the Convention Center for the AIPAC event immediately after the curtain falls.
Things on Capitol Hill rarely go as planned, and Will on the Hill is no exception to that rule. Last year’s performance, “Comedy of Capitol Errors,” started 45 minutes late because lawmakers were voting, but that didn’t seem to deter anyone, according to Dickens.
“I think that that increases the anticipation a little bit and brings a heightened excitement around everything, because our audience definitely understands when those sort of things happen, so there’re no hard feelings and no bad blood,” Dickens said.
While the night will likely satisfy Stearns and his colleagues, he said his dream role is to play Shakespeare’s portly comedic character, Falstaff, from “Henry IV.”
“I think it would be fun to play Falstaff, just to put on that extra weight — I’ve been thin all my life — to see what it’s like to be a little overweight,” he said.