Judge Merrick Garland takes bench for Shakespeare Theatre’s ‘Virtual Mock Trial’

Shakespeare Theatre Company hosts its Virtual Mock Trial. (Courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Shakespeare Theatre's 'Virtual Mock Trial'

It has become a biannual event in the nation’s capital since its inception back in 1994.

This month, Shakespeare Theatre will present a special “Virtual Mock Trial” on June 22.

“It’s always based on a fictional character from one of the plays that we’ve produced,” artistic director Simon Godwin told WTOP. “I arrived in the fall to take over for Michael Kahn and saw my first event earlier this year. It was extraordinary, funny, clever, brilliant.”

While the last Mock Trial involved “Peter Pan,” this time they’ll argue a case from “A Midsummer Night’s Force Majeure,” a re-imagining of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“You’ll remember in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ there is a group of mechanicals rehearsing a play based on the classic story of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe,’ but the play is canceled because one of the lead actors [is] turned into a donkey,” Godwin said.

Former White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler will argue the case for the Duke, while Winston & Strawn LLP attorney Abbe Lowell will argue for the acting company.

“Is this an act of God?” Godwin said. “Who has to pay for all the refunded tickets? The Duke who is producing the show or the acting company for not having an understudy?”

They’ll argue their case before a panel of real-life judges: Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Judge Patricia Millett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for D.C. and Judge Neomi Jehangir Rao of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

“It’s always featured an amazing number of people,” Godwin said. “Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has presided over 15 mock trials. … Justices [Samuel] Alito, [Anthony] Kennedy and [Stephen] Breyer have all surpassed the five times club.”

Due to coronavirus, they’ll dial in remotely from their chambers, homes or offices.

“We are now for the first time making this event virtual,” Godwin said. “It’s a big opening of the doors to a new audience and a new kind of experience. Everyone involved will be in their homes, and we’re going to be doing a recorded version via Zoom.”

Will the lawyers and judges still dress up in their legal garb?

“It’s all a new frontier,” Godwin said. “No one’s ever done this before, but I imagine there is going to be some degree of spectacle and investing in the roles. Certainly when I saw it last onstage, people were in their robes and it was an amazing event. So I’m confident that the element of the procedural and the spectacular will still be preserved.”

The Mock Trial is sponsored by the Bard Association.

Tickets are free for students and $50 for patrons.

“It’s a terrific way of supporting the theater during this period,” Godwin said. “There’s been an enormous amount of energy and costs and time that goes into not least all the extraordinary legal work that goes into preparing the briefs and the judges’ time in their preparation. So it’s to cover the cost of the event.”

At the end of the arguments, audiences will serve as jurors to decide the verdict.

“It’s an opportunity to see those great legal minds in action,” Godwin said. “These people are some of the most powerful people in America right now, so it’s very thrilling to have access to them. … So you have the double bonus of an amazing glimpse of the great legal minds at work and unpacking one of the greatest plays ever written.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Simon Godwin (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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