Hamlet (Matthew Carter, with Bree Welch as Ophelia) 
    has more problems than usual.
Hamlet (Matthew Carter, with Bree Welch as Ophelia) has more problems than usual.

Guilty Gertrude

Of all of Shakespeare's beleaguered heroes, none is more woeful than the grief-stricken Hamlet. The poor man's father is dead, and it looks like his brand-new stepfather may have murdered dear old Dad. Any good son would be undone by these circumstances, especially one as prone to brooding as Hamlet. But as imagined by director Carolyn Houston Boone in the Shakespeare Festival's production of Hamlet at Miller Outdoor Theatre, the Prince of Denmark is burdened by even nastier problems -- most notably, a shockingly slutty mother who can't keep her hands or lips off her new husband even in the presence of her son.

In fact, as the familiar story plays out here, it's a wonder Hamlet (Matthew Carter) doesn't just cut everyone's throats before the end of Act I. To hell with figuring out whether Claudius, his stepfather, is evil.

The production starts off as conventional as they come. With its gray castle walls and dark medieval archways, John Gow's set looks like a 19th-century version of realism. Even the ghost of Hamlet's dead father (Thomas Prior) looks old-school, dressed up in white and looking an awful lot like Dickens's Jacob Marley-- except Hamlet's dead father doesn't rattle any chains; instead he sings his ghostly wailings.


Hamlet, As You Like It

Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Drive in Hermann Park, 713-284-8354.

Hamlet: Through August 12. Free. As You Like It: Through August 13. Free.

The production takes a fast left into the land of the odd when we meet Hamlet's mother, Gertrude (Jennifer Cherry), and his stepfather, Claudius (Daniel Magill), who are conducting business even as they all but hump each other in front of Hamlet and everyone else in the court. Not only is she horny, but this Gertrude is the high empress of narcissism. When she doesn't have her legs wrapped around her new husband, she's primping or swilling down liquor. No one needs to tell us that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. These people are as smutty as they come.

Of course, any director who takes on Hamlet is charged with finding something new in the most familiar play in Western civilization. And making Gertrude, a character who is often thought of as simply weak, into a craven narcissist is certainly interesting, especially when she's as attractive as she is in this production. But this choice makes her behavior in the second half of the play seem odd, especially when Hamlet's troubles become apparent. Indeed, this production suggests that perhaps Gertrude was more than thoughtless in her hasty marriage -- perhaps she had something to do with her husband's murder. So when Hamlet wails, "Frailty, thy name is woman," the line rings completely false. Here, anyone, especially the obsessively observant Hamlet, can see that this Gertrude is anything but frail.

Still, for all its weirdness, this energetic production is certainly not dull (something that can't be said of a lot of versions). And though Carter's broodingly handsome rendition of the title character isn't particularly soulful or heartbreaking, he is clear; even those who don't know the story will be able to follow the plot in this production. Because this particular version is more lively than most, Hamlet in the park makes for a surprisingly decent night out.

Every Shakespeare festival needs a comedy, and in Houston the offering this year is As You Like It, directed by Sidney Berger. The story focuses on kindly Rosalind (Jennifer Cherry), who is banished from court by an evil uncle. Her close friend Celia (Celeste Roberts) follows Rosalind into banishment, where the two disguise themselves and end up in the countryside, where they're able to right past wrongs, fall madly in love with suitable boys, marry and dance the night away.

Filled with much singing and philosophizing, the play is not one of Shakespeare's most focused comedies. But the easygoing plot allows for lots of fun, especially for the rambunctious Cherry, who clearly loves every minute she spends on stage as the centerpiece of this happy production. In the early scenes, she's stunning in her gorgeous clothes, and when she ends up in the countryside, dressed as a boy, she has great fun as Rosalind, who frequently forgets she's supposed to be a boy and has to remind herself not to be so dainty.

Also funny is Rutherford Cravens as Touchstone, the flamboyant, randy clown who follows his mistress, Celia, into banishment. Daniel Magill makes a sexy love object as Orlando, the man Rosalind desires; and Tomas Prior adds a lovely soulfulness to the production as the cape-wearing Jaques, a most melancholy philosophizer.

While As You Like It may not be Shakespeare's best comedy, there is much to recommend this production, including the obvious fact that this is Shakespeare, after all.


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