April 28, 2010

Capital theater: Pingree takes the stage for the Bard

The Maine congresswoman joins 13 other lawmakers in Washington for a Shakespearean fundraiser.

By REBECCA J. RITZEL

WASHINGTON - Here in the nation's capital, there is just one night a year when it's a good thing for a member of Congress to be accused of staging political theater.

click image to enlarge

Rep. Chellie Pingree

It's the night of "Will on the Hill," an annual fundraiser for Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company. Monday night, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree was one of 14 legislators who volunteered to join the fun. Maine's congresswoman may not have brought down the house, but she did bring on the laughs and enjoy her star turn onstage.

"It really was fun," she said in the theater's lobby afterward, looking like a congresswoman once again. Moments before, a navy robe had concealed her business suit and a delicate crown was perched on her head. "No big hats," she said. "It was hot up there."

Put 14 lawmakers and a dozen lobbyists and reporters on one stage together and, yes, things can get a little hot, but never heavy. Each year, Shakespeare Theatre commissions a new script that employs the words of Shakespeare to lampoon the political process.

In this year's edition, "The Play's the Thing," Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., starred as a president struggling to write his State of the Union Address. He's stuck in a malaise, and responds to any and all questions with lines from Shakespeare's plays.

"I have of late -- but wherefore I know not -- lost all my mirth," Wicker tells two frustrated aides, quoting Hamlet.

The aides, Caliban and Miranda, were the only professional actors in the show. Holly Twyford, a darling of Washington's theater scene, and Peter Jacobson, an actor on the TV show "House," doubled as narrators.

"Now he's gone all Shakespearean on us," Jacobson explained to the audience. "It's some kind of coping mechanism."

With the country in an unnamed crisis and the big speech looming in 24 hours, the aides decide to fight Shakespeare with Shakespeare. They run through the president's talking points, using a scene from a play to illustrate each issue.

For this bipartisan drama, the issues weren't terribly controversial. To make a case for youth volunteerism, Reps. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., stumbled forward to spoof Shakespeare's classic slackers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

To advocate for increased aid to developing nations, an ambassador from a Third World country, played by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash, implored the president to give money.

Enter Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., dressed like Henry VIII but playing the secretary of state. Jackson recited an adapted version of the "Hath not this man eyes?" speech from "Merchant of Venice." As he pointed out successive parts of McDermott's body, the scene dissolved into an onstage tickle fight between the two.

More than 700 people, all too familiar with the Eric Massa scandal, convulsed with laughter.

For better or worse, that was the act Pingree had to follow. Cast as the secretary of labor, Pingree mediated a scene in which two candidates were vying to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The point had something to do with the rights of women in the workplace. A determined Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., faced off against feisty Fox News White House correspondent Major Garrett. They traded barbs until Pingree stepped forward.

"Now just hold it right there! I think I can be of some assistance!" Pingree said. "I've got something to say about the valuable contributions that women make to the American work force. You see "

Wasserman-Schultz cut her off. Or her character did. "Save it," she told Pingree. "I can handle this one by myself."

"But but this is my scene," was Pingree's retort. "I've been waiting over there all this time. This is my moment!"

The playwright had no mercy. Wasserman-Schultz launched into a spot-on recitation of Beatrice's "Oh, God, that I were a man!" speech from "Much Ado About Nothing." After the show, the two women laughed about their onstage sparring. Pingree and Wasserman-Schultz had attended different rehearsals, and didn't know they would be in the scene together. They are more accustomed to playing on the same team, that is, the congressional softball team.

"Chellie was great," Wasserman-Schultz said. "She was such a good sport. And it was good to play that scene opposite a friend. That way, there are no hard feelings." But then she pointed out that Pingree was missing softball practice this week.

 

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