‘Will on the Hill’ returns a marvel at Shakespeare Theatre Company

As I entered Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall for this year’s Will on the Hill: Theatre Magic, I was handed a very handsome Shakespearean feather pen. Visions of the Bard at his desk (did he have a desk?) floated before my eyes.

At the pre-show reception, there were more Shakespearean marvels — two stunning costumes from  King Lear: Patrick Page’s magnificently authoritarian uniform as the King, and Stephanie Jean Lane’s stylish outfit as Regan, complete with Sex in the City extra-high heels (How on earth did she do King Lear in them?). Also on display was Amari Cheatom’s sumptuous red costume as Ira Aldridge (the first Black actor to play Othello on a London stage) from Lolita Chakrabati’s Red Velvet. And for those who recall the bloody gouge-out-Gloucester’s-eyeballs scene from Lear, there was a live demo of how the prop shop did it: cherry tomatoes painted white.

This was the Shakespeare Theatre’s 21st annual Will on the Hill production — and the first one live and in person since COVID. Over the years the event has raised more than $6.5 million for STC’s arts education programs. Members of Congress, DC players, professional actors, and STC students all take part in this beloved bipartisan tradition.

The cast of ‘Will on the Hill’ 2023: (behind) Marla Allard, Robyn Bash, Elizabeth MacDonough, Grover Norquist, Senator Roger Wicker, Doug Heye, Rep. Dina Titus, Rep. Brendan Boyle, Emily Erickson, Saron Araia, and Mike Evans; (front) Gabriel Alejandro, Yihong Chen, Andrew Beasley, Marcus Martinez, Sarah Peckham, Samantha Stephan, and Sydney Downs. Photo by Kevin Allen Photography.

This year, as part of its outreach, the event featured gatherings before and after the show, as a post-pandemic welcome to the theater’s loyal audience.

Chief J. Thomas Manger (DC Capitol Police) and Chief John Donnelly (DC Fire and EMS) were in attendance, along with members of their forces, and received a boisterous round of applause.

STC Board Member Bernard F. McKay greeted us graciously at the start. He quoted George Washington: “[T]o encourage literature and the arts is the duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”

Mike Evans, partner at K&L Gates, former Chief Counsel for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, and a Shakespeare expert, was our affable and erudite host.

Sydney Downs, a recent graduate of the famed Duke Ellington High School, gave a moving rendition of Isabella’s monologue from Measure for Measure in which she decides whether or not she must submit to the attentions of the dastardly Angelo to save her brother’s life. A kind of #MeToo moment for the ages.

Richard III’s successful wooing of Lady Anne takes place over the corpse of her father-in-law, whom Richard killed. Richard also, he admits, killed her husband. Needless to say, you have to have a really good Richard.

We were blessed with not one but two talented Richards, and two equally talented Annes, all from South County High School in Fairfax. The performers were Sarah Peckham (Anne 1) and Marcus Martinez (Richard 1) and Samantha Stephan (Anne 2) and Andrew Beasley (Richard 2). Beasley’s Richard acknowledged, “Well, I did kill your husband,” as if he had ruined her favorite dress. One of many lines that, thanks to the fresh approach of the actor, led to somewhat shocked laughter.

Scenes from ‘Will on the Hill’ 2023 (clockwise from top left): Sydney Downs performs a monologue from ‘Measure for Measure’; Saron Araia, Grover Norquist, Rep. Brendan Boyle, and Rep. Darrell Issa perform a scene from ‘Julius Caesar’; Sarah Peckham and Marcus Martinez (students from South County High School) perform a scene from ‘Richard III’; Grover Norquist, Elizabeth MacDonough, and Emily Erickson perform a scene from ‘Macbeth.’ Photos by Kevin Allen Photography.

Julius Caesar (a fitting choice for DC) featured Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform) as the hapless poet Cinna, murdered by a rapacious mob who mistake him for a similarly named conspirator. Robyn Bash, Saron Araia, Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA), and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) excelled as his tormentors. This memorable scene contains the immortal line: “Kill him for his bad verses!”

We even welcomed the Three Witches (Grover Norquist, Elizabeth MacDonough, and Emily Erickson) from the Scottish play. Norquist, in a dark robe and a medieval-like coif, displayed his flair for comedy as the first Witch. His “double double toil and trouble” was a highlight of the evening. Elizabeth MacDonough and Emily Erickson were equally chilling, offering sinuous gestures and movement as well as speech.

The scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream during which the Mechanicals plan their performance was an audience favorite. Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), as Bottom, announced at the outset, “We haven’t exactly done our blocking.” This sally was greeted with general amusement. His Bottom was a kind of poet manqué, and a very funny one. Saron Araia, Doug Heye, and Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) skillfully rounded out his jolly band. Rep. Titus even added a feminist touch to the proceedings.

Beatrice and Benedick’s dazzling first scene from Much Ado About Nothing was performed by Emily Erickson and Rep. Brendan Boyle. The appeal of the two lovers who love to hate each other always seems eternal. A line from Twelfth Night (Act II, Scene 3) could be the subtext:

What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter
Present mirth hath present laughter.

Everyone involved offered their talents to help others. And we all streamed happily into the summer night.

Running Time: 53 Minutes, with no intermission.

Will on the Hill: Theatre Magic played on June 13, 2023, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20004.

Credits and participants’ bios are in the Will on the Hill program, which is online here.

Will on the Hill: Theatre Magic
Directed by Samantha Wyer Bello
Emcee: Mike Evans
Stage Manager: Heather Janay Ogden
Production Manager: Hilary Surface
Government Affairs & Sponsorships Lead: Christine Patschak
Event Logistics: Gaddiel Adams

Measure for Measure: Sydney Downs
Richard III: Sarah Peckham, Marcus Martinez, Andrew Beasley, Samantha Stephan
Julius Caesar: Grover Norquist, Rep. Darrell Issa, Saron Araia, Robyn Bash, Rep. Brendan Boyle
Macbeth: Grover Norquist, Emily Erickson, Elizabeth MacDonough
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Sen. Roger Wicker, Saron Araia, Rep. Dina Titus, Doug Heye
Much Ado About Nothing: Rep. Brendan Boyle, Emily Erickson