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Read an excerpt of Peter Marks’ recent article about the development of Wallenstein in The Washington Post.
A poet laureate tackles a German classic in Shakespeare Theatre’s Wallenstein
by Peter Marks
Friday, April 12, 2013
ORANGEBURG, N.Y. — In the basement recording studio of a tract house in an aging subdivision, a former poet laureate of the United States rocks back and forth to the improvisational licks of a jazz piano and, when he’s feeling the vibe, blurts out lines of his own poems.
“Slurry of passion and lapsed intention,” Robert Pinsky reads into the microphone, his jeans and dark shirt hanging on a fit, 72-year-old frame. “The imagined taste made the savage deities hiss and snort.”
Laurence Hobgood, the pianist, stops playing. “I need more piano,” he announces to the sound engineer on the other side of the glass. “Less of Robert.”
“Less of Robert!” Pinsky chimes in. “Always a good idea.”
In point of fact, more of Robert is what fans of music, literature — and classical theater — are in for. On this afternoon, Pinsky is away from his home in Cambridge, Mass., and ensconced in New York’s northern suburbs to record Pinsky poetry set to transporting riffs that he and Hobgood lay down as tracks of their “PoemJazz” albums.
The jazz endeavor — one of several of the inventive projects that Pinsky, who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, always seems to be coming up with — could not be more different in scope from the other collaboration that commands his attention these days: an adaptation for the Shakespeare Theatre Company of the almost-never-seen “Wallenstein.” The epic 18th-century drama by German playwright-historian Friedrich Schiller, set during middle Europe’s horrifically chaotic Thirty Years’ War, is being introduced to Washington audiences this spring in revolving repertory with another difficult play about warriors, Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.”
“Wallenstein” is a daring and daunting enterprise on so many levels that it’s hard to know how to rank the challenges. The full version by Schiller — author of “Mary Stuart” and “Wilhelm Tell” — is a trilogy that runs 10 hours. (Its premiere in 1798 was directed by none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.) The account, based on history, of a brilliant, charismatic German general, whose loyalty to the Emperor of Austria is tested by his desire to end the war, unfolds around a conflict so confusingly tribal that you need a flowchart just to figure who’s on which side. And making its verse and characters palatable, even for an audience as sophisticated as the Shakespeare’s, is a towering task, especially because the trilogy had to be boiled down to a running time of a little more than two hours.
Poet laureate to the rescue! Artistic Director Michael Kahn, eager to extend his company repertory beyond the ever more recycled Shakespearean canon, has been forging alliances over the past several years with playwrights and other writers to adapt lesser-known works by infrequently produced dramatists of the past. The collaborations have led to Shakespeare Theatre productions such as “The Liar,” David Ives’s stylishly rhymed version of Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century comedy, and before that, “Lorenzaccio,” a 19th-century tragedy by Alfred de Musset, adapted by John Strand.