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Extreme Makeover

The Houston Shakespeare Festival shakes things up

Hoot and holler all you want. Director Sidney Berger's Western take on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is more fun than a hoedown on a Saturday night. Purists might be fuming, but this old-dog of a comedy has been tricked up with fine, newfangled charms.

In Berger's version, most of the characters speak with a trashy twang. And they hail from such unlikely Shakespearean locales as Oklahoma, Colorado and good old Texas. Gathered on the porches and dusty-looking streets of John Gow's homegrown set, they just about convince us that the American West is what the old Bard must have had in mind all along.

The premise of the plot is the same: Lovely Bianca and cantankerous Kate are sisters. Bianca has several suitors, but their father has declared that she can't get married until Kate does. Hats off to the rambunctious performers sweating up a storm of energy at the Miller Outdoor Theater -- they're a big part of why this unlikely concept feels so natural.

The wild Kate (Celeste Roberts) would as soon kick 
Petruchio's (Justin Doran) backside as kiss his face.
George Hixson
The wild Kate (Celeste Roberts) would as soon kick Petruchio's (Justin Doran) backside as kiss his face.

Details

The Taming of the Shrew at 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, August 12 and 14. Macbeth at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, August 15. 713-284-8350. Free.
Miller Outdoor Theater, 100 Concert Drive

Heading the pack of scoundrels making off with Shakespeare's script is Justin Doran as Petruchio, the fellow who tames saucy Kate. Lanky and loud, the man brings a tornado of brash wit to the stage every time he saunters out. Landing somewhere between bronco rider and Western sheriff, Doran's Petruchio delivers his jokes with a sexy strut as he tries to conquer a wild horse of a woman. As played by the fiery Celeste Roberts, Kate's a difficult filly, any man would have to be crazy to try. She'd as soon kick his backside as kiss his face.

As Bianca, Bree Welch makes the perfect foil. Not tender and loving as in so many Shrews, Welch has turned the usually dull, sweet sister into a spoiled beauty who enjoys teasing her many suitors. Among them are George Brock's hysterical Gremio and Jason Douglas's equally funny blustering boob of a Hortensio. And of course there's the fellow who eventually wins the beauty, the handsome Lucentio, played as a charming cowboy by Daniel Magill.

Best of all is Petruchio's trusty servant Grumio, handled with indomitable spirit by Rutherford Cravens. With his messy hair, muddy boots and baggy britches, he makes the best clown of the bunch. Scared of Kate and hopelessly confused by Petruchio's puns, he all but makes off with the show with his every bumbling move.

I can't think of a better way to spend a hot night in the city this summer than spreading out on the hill at Miller Outdoor Theater, enjoying Shakespeare as he's never been seen before.


In his program note, Rob Bundy gives a perfectly logical explanation for the pan-Asian look he's given Macbeth. He argues that there are a "number of themes and events in the play which are reminiscent of classic themes in Eastern philosophy." There's the Buddhist idea of karma, the Hindu concept of reality as illusion and Taoist notions about the cycles of revolution and order.

Fair enough. In this murderous tale of war and revenge, Macbeth (Jason Douglas) certainly does get some mighty karmic comeuppance. And the illusory nature of Macbeth's reality becomes clear the crazier he gets (after all, he sees dead people). As for revolution and order -- a stage full of warriors has to revolt and die before Scotland returns to order. On paper, Bundy's concept looks very smart. On stage, however, the concept looks bizarre.

The biggest problem with Bundy's concept is the disjoint of the words the actors are saying with the images coming at you from the stage. Shakespeare spends a lot of time talking about the war in Scotland and the "Norweyan banners" and the "Thanes" of this place or that. And warriors run to-and-fro from England and Ireland to Scotland.

In other words, this is a land of ruddy redheads and scruffy blondes. But as conceived by Bundy, the actors are dressed up as ancient Asian warriors. They wear wigs of straight black hair and silky, flowing clothes under their leather armor. Macbeth even wears a long thin beard and looks an awful lot like Fu Manchu.

It gets worse when these thanes die. After Macbeth has killed Banquo (Daniel Magill), Banquo comes back to haunt him looking like a reject from a KISS concert.

The concept doesn't help this group of usually strong actors vault the difficulties intrinsic to performing Macbeth. The script is filled with complex stage fights, wailing characters who roam the night in their sleep, and dead bodies that just keeping piling up. From start to finish, it's over-the-top melodrama. And if the audience is going to buy into this bloody mess of a world, Macbeth and his madness need to be terrifyingly authentic. But as imagined by Bundy, with all the costumes and makeup and wigs, the story of the mighty murderous thane is about as scary as Halloween. 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, August 12 and 14.

8:30 p.m. Sunday, August 15.

Miller Outdoor Theater, 100 Concert Drive, 713-284-8350. Free.

 
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