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Shakespeare Theatre's Free for All lives up to its name

The Shakespeare Theatre Company is finally getting around to putting the "all" in their annual Free for All performances of the Bard's beloved classics.

This year, the D.C. troupe — arguably the third best Shakespeare company in the world — is restaging its inventive and much-lauded production of "Twelfth Night" for 22 performances through Sept. 5. And for the first time, the theater is trying out an online lottery system that should ensure that audience members from Baltimore actually have a shot at the roughly 500 tickets that will be up for grabs before each show.

For the previous 19 years, tickets were given away on a first-come, first-served basis by theatergoers who queued up in front of the box office. Audience members from the nation's capital who didn't have to travel far to the company's F Street box office held a considerable advantage over those who lived in Charm City and its suburbs.

After all, who wanted to drive for 90 minutes, pay for parking and stand for four or five hours in the hot August sun with their kids, only to be turned away when the supply of free tickets ran out? If patrons weren't steamed up when they arrived at Harman Hall, they certainly were when they left empty-handed.

"Given that we're having the hottest summer on record, we wanted to eliminate the massive amounts of people waiting outside," said Darby Lunceford, the theater's director of marketing and communications.

"Last year, was the first time we'd held the Free for All in Harman Hall instead of in an amphitheater in the Maryland suburbs. Instead of 3,000 available seats for each performance, there were maybe 500. It created problems, and we heard about it from our customers."

But even though Harman Hall has roughly one-fifth the space of the ampitheater, Lunceford said there were good reasons for shifting the shows to the city. Their new venue is located on three Metro lines, opening up performances for the first time to audience members who can't afford cars.

And, as partial compensation for all those lost seats, the number of performances has doubled, to 22 this year.

Here's how the lottery system will work:

Let's say you want to attend a Saturday matinee performance of "Twelfth Night." Go online to shakespearetheatre.org/ffa between midnight and 1 p.m. on the day before — in this case Friday — and request either one or two tickets. If your name is selected in the lottery, you will be notified by email after 1 p.m. Friday. The tickets will be held at the box office until 30 minutes before show time, when they will be distributed to those in the standby line.

Now, let's say that you prefer the Saturday evening show. In that case, you would register online sometime between midnight and 1 p.m. on Saturday, the same day you want to attend the performance. If your name pops up, you will be notified by email shortly after the lottery closes.

Patrons who don't have access to a computer can stop by the box office at 610 F St. N.W., Washington between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. to have their names submitted in that day's lottery.

"We want to make sure that everyone who wants to see "Twelfth Night" has a chance to enter," Lunceford said.

This "Twelfth Night," — about twins shipwrecked on the island of Illyria and featuring one of the Bard's most beloved cross-dressing heroines — should be well worth seeing.

The production, which opened in Washington in December, 2008, later traveled to Princeton, N.J. A review in The New York Times by Christopher Isherwood praised director Rebecca Bayla Taichman's "stylish" production, which includes a cascade of rose petals falling to the stage floor. Her staging is being re-created for the Free for All by director Alan Paul.

Some of the individual performers from that production are reprising their roles for the Free for All production, including Floyd King and Nancy Robinette as the clowns Feste and Maria.

The rest of the cast includes a slew of actors who may be familiar from Broadway and television, including "Guiding Light's" Gregory Wooddell as the Duke Orsino; Randy Harrison (Justin in "Queer as Folk') performing the part of Sebastian, and the acclaimed regional theater actress Sarah Agnew as the Countess Olivia.

Taichman has described "Twelfth Night" as a Mozartian comedy that combines a "requiem-sized sadness" with humor and hijinks.

"The play is full of tremendous contradictions," she said. "At the outset, Illyria seems like an isolated world surrounded by the implacable sea. But from the moment Viola washes up on its shores, Illyria begins to blossom into a wild and wonderfully ridiculous playground. Finding a tone that accomodates those opposites is a great challenge."


"Twelfth Night" runs through Sept. 5 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW, Washington. For show times or more information, call 202-547-1122 or go to shakespearetheatre.org.

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