Season 08-09 Season
Interview with Michael Kahn and Rebecca Bayla Taichmann
This fall and winter, the Shakespeare Theatre Company presents two great English comedies: William Congreve’s The Way of the World and William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Written a century apart, these two plays reveal the many faces of love. Directors Michael Kahn and Rebecca Bayla Taichman discussed these complex comedies with Shakespeare Theatre Company Literary Associate Akiva Fox.
Akiva Fox: You decided to pair The Way of the World and Twelfth Night this season. They will play back to back, and use many of the same actors. Why did you want to present these two plays?
Michael Kahn: They’re both the greatest of their kind: Twelfth Night is the greatest of the Elizabethan comedies, and The Way of the World is the greatest of the Restoration comedies. And I was full of admiration for what Rebecca did with The Taming of the Shrew, which I think is a nearly impossible play. I knew that she liked Twelfth Night, and since we haven’t done Twelfth Night in a long time, I thought it would be great. It’s also exciting to me that these actors will get to do two different kinds of plays.
Rebecca Bayla Taichman: Sharing actors with Michael Kahn is, well, intimidating … and exciting. These are some of our country’s greatest performers of Shakespeare, and to direct Twelfth Night with them on the Harman Hall stage is nothing less than this director’s dream come true.
AF: Michael, you’ll be leading off with The Way of the World, a thrilling play but one that audiences may not know as well. What excites you about this play, and what do you think will excite audiences about it?
MK: The Way of the World is really witty and sexy, and it has an involving plot and wonderful, rich characters. It’s about money, sex, power, appearances and deception, and finally, love. Everything is a manipulation in The Way of the World. Money is in many ways the central issue of The Way of the World; it begins with a card game, and ends with the right people getting the money they need and the wrong people not getting it. And there’s an enormous amount of deception that goes on. The comedy comes from how clever people are at deception. Mirabell and Millamant love each other, but they endlessly deceive other people, and each other, in order to achieve that love. And that is probably the truest relationship in the play! It’s a huge comedy of deception, set in a society that really has money and sex at the heart of its concerns.
And also, as a director, I’ve been so aware that there’s a continuum in English comedy from Much Ado about Nothing, which I’ve done, to Oscar Wilde, which I’ve done, to Noël Coward, which I’m going to do at the end of this season. Right in the middle of that, making the real change, is Congreve and The Way of the World. He takes what used to be stock characters in Restoration plays and turns them into actual human beings, so that their motives are complex. The relationships seem very modern to me.
AF: Rebecca, Twelfth Night is more famous, but I think people may be surprised at how new it feels. What excites you about the play?
RT: Whereas The Taming of The Shrew is a problem play—I was at war with the text as much as I embraced it—Twelfth Night is perfect. It is ravishing, hilarious and romantic, romantic, romantic. Running through the play’s obvious delights, however, are multiple rivers of sadness and anxiety. Many of our central characters are in mourning, desires are thwarted throughout, and nearly everyone is restless for love but bewildered about how to grab hold of it.
Recently I dreamt that I was at a design meeting for Twelfth Night. I wanted the first half of the play frozen, encapsulated in ice, and saw the second half in a garden of a thousand roses. The dream encapsulates, in an extreme way, how I understand the movement of the play: from isolation and thwarted love into a flood of desire. The swing is extreme, and capturing the play’s shifting tone will likely be our greatest challenge. I imagine that the way to the grief will be through laughter, and the way to the laughter will be through tears…
AF: So both plays talk about love and deception, but they do so in very different ways.
MK: It is the difference between the Elizabethans, who I think were still optimistic about the way the world was going, and the Restoration, which came after the plague, after the fire, after the revolution. The Restoration is such a different world on the stage, not just because there are women up there, but because of what had happened to England. I think people show their emotions for the most part in Twelfth Night, and for the most part emotions are hidden in The Way of the World, because they’re protecting status or position or appearance.
RT: In Twelfth Night there are mistaken identities, gender-bending tangles, various forms of disguise and self-disguise, any number of sexual ambiguities, and an ever-multiplying chain of misconceptions. But, as Michael aptly points out, even from behind all the masks, the irrational and disorienting effects of desire pour out.
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