Now in its fifteenth year as a fundraiser for the educational programs of Shakespeare Theater Company, Will on the Hill joins a few celebrity actors with a gaggle of professional politicians to perform a story loosely based on a Shakespeare play and strewn with jokes about DC’s favorite cottage industry: politics.
I’d been eager to attend this event since first moving to DC five years ago: Politicians pretending to be actors. Celebrities exposing themselves through improv. Washington insiders hobnobbing over cocktails with said celebrities and politicians. I longed to be a fly on the wall to see what I could glean about my newly adopted city.
After attending, I’m happy to report that bipartisanship still exists in Washington, DC. Gone may be the era when Republican and Democratic Congressmen forged policy over scotch in the wee hours of the morning. Lost are the days when Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg took in the opera together. But Republican and Democratic members of Congress, along with other Washington notables, still join forces once a year to don Renaissance garb and stumble through Shakespearean dialogue for charity.
This year’s show was entitled Met By Moonlight. The original script by Peter Byrne, with assistance from DC’s West Wing Writers, humorously transplants A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the woods of Maryland’s Patuxent Research Reserve. (“Call Nick Bottom!” “I tried but Siri keeps sending me to Foggy Bottom!” See? Humorous.)
Four professional actors lead the srory: Ian Kahn from AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies plays Oberon; Maulik Pancholy (30 Rock) is his sidekick Puck. Oberon and Puck wander into the Patuxent Reserve and meet two enthusiastic forest rangers played by Emily Swallow (The Mentalist) and Santino Fontana (Frozen, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend).
After much exposition and about a zillion jokes about the heat of the DC summer, it is time for the politicians to take center stage. In groups of three or four, they wander into the “forest” and explain why they are fleeing DC. (hint: DC is super hot in the summer.)
We meet politicians playing lobbyists. Politicians playing congressional staffers. Politicians playing politicians searching for their congressional staffers. My favorite performances were by Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) as clueless tourists from Minnesota who annoyed Oberon so much that he spelled them both to love the same woman. (Chris Coons does a brilliant Minnesota accent!)
There were a few non-professional actors who definitely shouldn’t quit their day jobs, but for the most part, I was impressed by the acting quality of the DC political cohort. And for every foible that happened onstage (imagine a member of Congress frantically leafing through his script looking for his next line), there was a professional actor there to capitalize on the moment and turn it into comedic gold.
The one disappointment I had was that the non-professional performers were not identified by name. This made it difficult to put names to faces for many of the performers. I knew that Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, NPR’s Ari Shapiro, and US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke were supposedly up there, and I longed to hear Grover Norquist recite Shakespeare, but given the feathered plumes many were wearing, it was hard to figure out who was who.
A bonus to the evening was the chance to mingle with this diverse group at the cocktail reception prior to the show and the dinner after. I definitely glimpsed Grover Norquist enjoying a bite of food near the stairs (he was easier to recognize without the hat), and I got to speak to several of the performers about the show.
Santino Fontana explained that he was eager to be a part of Will on the Hill because: “I had never heard of anything like it. Also, I figured I might get the real scoop on what is going on in the country these days from some of the politicians backstage!”
Marla Allard, who has the distinction of having performed in the show for eleven years straight, gushed about the bipartisan nature of the show. “You have to applaud us for being 50% Republican, 50% Democrat. We all have so much fun together and come back year after year.”
In addition to Met By Moonlight, Will on the Hill included an innovative performance of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, brought to life by the students of the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. This school is a recipient of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Text Alive! program through which students are taught to read, analyze and perform Shakespeare.
We all know the old saying “Politics is just show business for ugly people.” (Don’t look at me, they say it in the show!) Well, there is nothing ugly about this event that encourages bipartisanship in the nation’s capital and raises money for the arts.
Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.
Will on the Hill, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Annual Bipartisan Comedic Event played one night only on June 12, 2017, at Sidney Harman Hall – 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to future Shakespeare Theatre Company events, go online.