Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) held their 19th Will on the Hill performance yesterday evening, June 7. The annual show features members of the House and Senate alongside professional actors in a performance that raises funds for STC’s arts education programs. The proverbial “Will” is, of course, William Shakespeare himself.
Like last year, this year’s show, “Will on the Hill and Far Away,” was held virtually because of the pandemic. Written by playwright Nat Cassidy, Act I opens on the Hill, albeit over Zoom, during a hearing on the merits of the Bard. Through a “technical glitch” the politicians are whisked far away into Shakespeare’s plays for Acts II and III, where they encounter one classic character after another.
Samantha Wyer Bello directs and STC Artistic Director Simon Godwin hosts, offering commentary between acts. There is also a feature on the students benefiting from the program. The performance is not live, but STC plays that to their advantage, playing on Zoom filters and using post-production effects. Bello also directed last year’s “Will on the Hill… Or Won’t They?”
Act I opens with a still that reads STC-SPAN, a taste of the good-natured humor to come. The bulletin at the bottom reads “Congressional Hearing: William Shakespeare: What’s the deal with that guy?” Playing themselves, Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Beth Van Duyne (R-TX) preside over the hearing which features the testimony of Shakespeare himself. Played by STC favorite Patrick Page, Shakespeare attends through the machine of a mad scientist, played by Yonatan Gebeyehu.
When the machine breaks, the politicians end up in the world of Shakespeare and have to then navigate the often violent plays to return to the present. Act II features Rep. André D. Carson (D-IN) and conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist running from the King Henry’s of Shakespeare’s world with the help of fictional Rep. Jessica Tanzer (D-DC) and Prospero’s fairy assistant from “The Tempest” Ariel (Tẹmídayọ Amay). Act III features Prospero (Gregory Wooddell) saving Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) from, among other things, a bear played by Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT).
Recording allowed non-actors to do multiple takes and take on prominent roles compared to previous years. But Bello misses the live performance, and wonders how they can incorporate elements of the recorded performance in future years.
By now the program is an engrained tradition and many are repeat performers, including D.C.’s own Delegate to the House Eleanor Holmes Norton. According to Bello, the non-actors often take to the show because they had an arts experience as a kid and appreciate the value of an arts education. In directing politicians, Bello also finds that there are transferable skills, whether that’s public speaking or just thinking on their feet and following direction.
“Qualities that are needed [and] that are inherent to professional actors, are also in our remarkable political guests,” says Bello.
The summer camp quality of the show also allows the politicians to show a side of themselves otherwise not seen on the Hill.
“They get to let their hair down a little bit,” says Bello. “Because this is something outside the bounds of writing legislation and running the country, they’re able to be a bit joyful.”
Still, recent events are hard to shake in watching the representatives alongside one another and the show features less ribbing than it did previously, like in 2013 when Anna Chlumsky, then starring in political satire “Veep,” hosted the show.
“What Will on the Hill was several years ago, where it was a lot of sideways humor and tagging each side, you’ll see a minimal amount of that.”
Instead, Bello notes, they decided to focus on why Shakespeare matters and the show’s role in funding local arts education. Bello’s primary role at STC is actually as Director of Engagement and Education. In past performances she introduced students who had benefited from STC’s education programs, like Text Alive! a program that helps students produce their own Shakespeare performance.
“Seeing Eleanor Holmes Norton greeting students from her constituency and the student making the connection and being in awe that they were on the same stage,” says Bello while recalling moments that make the performances worthwhile.
This year also features cameos from Finn Wittrock (“American Horror Story”) Harry Hamlin (“LA Law”), and Faran Tahir (“Ironman”). And while the show is memorable for bridging the aisle to put politicians in ridiculous roles, Bello says it’s all about the kids who benefit from the funds raised during the event.
“Will on the Hill and Far Away” is available to view online until Thursday, June 10 at 11:59 pm. Learn more and stream the performance at www.shakespearetheatre.org/support/special-events/will-on-the-hill/ and view the virtual playbill here.
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