Celebrating the Bard
For the Houston Shakespeare Festival, director Steve Pickering sets the world's most famous play in Edwardian Denmark, using WWI as background. It fits the mood, as warlike Fortinbras prowls through Europe, eyeing Hamlet's troubled royal house. It also allows costumer Clair Hummel to overlay a lively period look — antique military uniforms for the men, tiered Titanic-era gowns for the women. In Mark Krouskup's castle with those mammoth bas-relief faces carved on their stony sides, the broody Dane feels right at home. The lighting and projection designs by Clint Allen gloss the production with wit (when Laertes takes his leave, a phalanx of biplanes sees him off), so the updating does no harm and, at least, treats Shakespeare with respect.
Prince Hamlet (Benjamin Reed), miserable since his recently widowed mother Gertrude (Cindy Pickett) has married his uncle Claudius (Mark Metcalf), is haunted by the ghost of his father (David Rainey), who reveals that he has been foully murdered by Claudius. Hamlet is commanded by the woeful specter to seek vengeance. Hamlet spends the remainder of the play planning the deed, delaying the deed or thinking about the deed. Shakespeare keeps us on edge with Hamlet's indecision (will he be damned for killing a killer?). As his personal life derails, he feigns madness, gives up Ophelia (Amelia Hammond), stages a play "to catch the conscience of the king," rashly kills Ophelia's father Polonius (Rutherford Cravens) and duels with hot-tempered Laertes (Andrew Garrett). When he finally achieves his objective, the stage is littered with corpses.
Young-looking Reed, a recent University of Houston graduate, paints the moody Dane with intelligence, quicksilver humor and a chilling sense of dread. He looks like the university student Hamlet is supposed to be, yet delivers those famous soliloquies ("To be or not to be," "What a piece of work is man," et al.) with consummate skill and clarity.
Metcalf, Rainey, Cravens and young Hammond breathe such life into their characters that they seem resuscitated. The play expands with these actors. As Claudius becomes more desperate, Metcalf becomes more dissipated, always with a drink in his hand to dull the guilt. Drunk and dangerous, he's a worthy adversary. A wily trooper, Cravens eats up fatuous Polonius like an hors d'oeuvre. Shakespeare comes naturally to his bones; he practically purrs his lines. Hammond impresses with freshness and a chilling mad scene, while Garrett brings a rash impulsiveness to grief-stricken Laertes, and his swordfight with Hamlet is thrillingly staged. Pickett, as Queen Gertrude, though, is much too hazy and indistinct. Played as more cotton candy than steel wool, she jumped some cues and flubbed a few lines, disrupting Shakespeare's knife-edge dramaturgy. She wasn't quite there.
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
Shakespeare goes positively loony in this early work (c. 1594). Taking his source from Roman comedian Plautus, he ups the ante, doubling the original set of identical twins (Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse) by adding two identical twin servants (both, of course, named Dromio). This makes for countless mistaken identities that motor the play into delicious low-comedy territory. This play crackles with fun. Shakespeare must have been in a very good mood when he wrote it.
Director Paul Steger sets the play in wild west Galveston, giving the Bard a neat Texas twang that adds another antic twist to this pretzel-like comedy.
In HSF's update, Egeon (Mark Metcalf), a rich merchant from Houston, comes to Galveston in search of his long lost sons. Unbeknownst to him, both twin sons (David Matranga and Jon Egging) and twin servants (H.R. Bradford and Joshua Kyle Hoppe) are also in town. Needless to say, complications ensue as, scene by scene, one brother or his servant is mistaken for the other. That Antipholus of Galveston is married gives Shakespeare ample opportunity to parody fidelity, as the unmarried twin rebuffs the wife (Annie Rubino) but falls for her sister (Amelia Hammond). The Dromios are constantly beaten for doing just what they're told to do, but inevitably return to the wrong brother to receive another kick in the ass.
In matching Black Bart moustaches, Matranga and Egging build their characters with slow burns, double takes and ever-varied expressions of astonishment at the craziness of it all. Bradford and Hoppe, as their Dromios, are even better, as archetypes of the glib, put-upon second banana that has been a standard in comedy since...well, Shakespeare. Their bantering patter is rat-a-tat gunshot with dead-on aim. Rubino, as spurned wife Adriana, plays her too broadly, as if auditioning for a sitcom, which waters down the humor, but Carolyn Johnson, as randy maid Luce, hams it up like Mammy Yokum — which is a good thing, when you witness the precision of Johnson's ham. Hammond, as wise yet lovesick Luciana, again lights up the stage. Pickett, a misplaced Gertrude in Hamlet, has trouble finding her way through Emilia, lost wife of Egeon and mother to both Antipholuses, flubbing her recognition scene, while her errant mike popped and spewed annoyingly.
Full of picturesque fun, Comedy of Errors is a delight. This production would make Shakespeare laugh. Hamlet might make him weep. High praise for this year's Houston Shakespeare Festival.
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