DC: Dinner with Harry Hamlin

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“Hi, I’m Harry,” he says, shaking my hand.

And when he sits down at our table, a woman next to him asks, “Who do you write for?”

That’s the standard first question here at the American Theatre Critics Association conference in Washington. But, in this case, it’s not the right question.

Because Harry isn’t a critic. He’s an invited guest of a different sort for this pre-show dinner at the Shakespeare Theatre. Ten years or so ago, Harry played Henry V with this acclaimed theater company, both on its mainstage and for its hugely popular free summer Shakespeare series.

He also danced with the stars, clashed with the Titans, and defined our image of the Los Angeles lawyer.

Harry Hamlin isn’t the only notable Hollywood actor who considers the Shakespeare Theatre a home. Indiana native Avery Brooks–of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and, more relevantly here, “Othello,” “Oedipus” and “Tamburlaine”–has joined another table.

Hamlin–who now has an alternative energy business and a chain of women’s clothing stores–considers himself semi-retired from acting while his two young kids are growing up. “When I come back, I might be ready for ‘Lear,'” he says.

I asked about theater legend Laurence Oliver, who he appeared with in the less-than-legendary film “Clash of the Titans,” Hamlin says, “He knew I revered him. And he apologied because he thought that, by being in this film, his stock had tone down.”

My only exposure to Hamlin’s theatrical side was in his LA Theatreworks recording of “A View from the Bridge.” LATW gathers actors with theater chops for short-rehearsal-period, one-weekend-of-performances, script-in-hand productions of plays. It then broadcasts them on radio and releases them on DVD. (Visit here for more info). Turns out Hamlin was there during the development of the company, when it was trying to mount a production of Hamlet but faced everyone-wants-to-be-the-star challenges.

This dinner isn’t about Hamlin, though. It’s an introduction to the Shakespeare Theatre, led by the charasmatic Michael Kahn, who has remarkably made the Bard’s work–and not just the “hits”–commerical here in D.C. And not just when a familiar star such as Brooks or Hamlin is playing a lead.

The company’s mainstage is housed in a brand-spanking new theater, where we catch an “Anthony and Cleopatra” free of gimmicks, name stars, or a blunt directorial stamp.

Clarity seems to be key here, but so is an embracing of the scale of the work. The famed romance takes place in the midst of war and a thinly populated stage just wouldn’t cut it.

Is it a play I think should be on the short list of most-produced Shakespeare work? No. But I’m glad I saw it and, more importantly, I’m glad I saw it here, in the hands of a director, actors and designers who have as much respect for the play and the audience as they do for their visions.

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