Lovers and Warriors Hit the Stage for the Houston Shakespeare Festival
Mike Nichols, winner of eight Tony Awards as best director, with seven additional nominations, once said, "I've noticed that, in repertory companies, the actors are all very slightly miscast." Like all great truths, this has exceptions, of course, but it does illustrate the need to cast properly. Nichols also said: "Casting is 80 percent of success, and correcting casting mistakes an additional 10 percent."
Repertory or not, Marc Masterson, the director of As You like it (one of the alternating productions in this year's annual Houston Shakespeare Festival courtesy of the University of Houston), has found the perfect cast for the young lovers Rosalind and Orlando in the persons of Annie Rubino and Benjamin Reed. Rosalind is one of the most complex of the bard's female roles — the role has attracted such luminaries as Edith Evans, Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave. Rubino lights up the stage with her glowing smile, intelligent comprehension, wit and charm; she flirts without yielding authority, and moves with flowing grace.
Reed matches her, bubbling with energy, good will, masculine appeal and youthful enthusiasm. It is easy to believe in their love at first sight, and the extended scene where Rosalind pretends to be a man, Ganymede, and persuades Orlando to pretend that Ganymede is Rosalind and to practice wooing her, is hilarious and warmly rewarding.
The casting is considerably less on target for the titular characters in the historical drama Antony and Cleopatra, also at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Crystal Dickinson plays Cleopatra, but fails to find the regal stature the part demands. The play is directed by Leah C. Gardiner, who perhaps might have helped Dickinson grasp more fully her crucial role. Mark Antony is portrayed by Seth Gilliam, who has the right look, but none of the fire in the belly; it is difficult to see him as a warrior ruler. Many of the cast seem to shout their lines here, a directorial choice, as it rarely happens in As You Like It, with a different director. It works for the battle scenes (well-staged) that exemplify the fog of war, but not in the council chambers or domestic scenes.
This is a difficult, complex play, important for several reasons — one of these is that it chronicles ancient rivalries in the Middle East. I laughed out loud at Octavius Caesar's line "The time of universal peace is near." And the drama is intended as an epic love story, a romance that spans the centuries and echoes down the corridors of time. The playwright has not provided in the script all the tools to achieve this — the director and actors must put the flesh of great passion and greater love onto these bones; this has not happened.
There is considerable humor in Antony and Cleopatra, and Gardiner has found it, helped by Greg Cote as a messenger, and Paul Hope as a clown. This is a fascinating narrative of high-level alliances and betrayals, of deceptions large and small, and a reminder that some of those in authority may be as venal as the jackals of the veldt. Of the rulers, only Octavius Caesar, portrayed by Brandon Dirden in a memorable performance, seems to have been born to the purple, and his plans seem sane, not wild imaginings driven by ego. Pompey (Benjamin Reed) is sneered at by the others, and Agrippa (Jon L. Egging) seems a spear carrier when positioned next to Dirden. This is not due to the shortcomings of the actors, but to the delineations in the script.
In As You Like It, after some opening scenes at the court of Duke Frederick, the action swiftly moves to the Forest of Arden, where wanderers interact and savor the chance meetings (save the one offstage with a bear). Rutherford Cravens is authoritative yet warm and human as the deposed Duke Senior, and Brandon Dirden (Octavius Caesar in the companion play) is varied and vastly amusing as Corin, an elderly forester — he also plays, and well, the stern Duke Frederick in the opening scenes. Seth Gilliam, who portrays Mark Anthony, here plays the melancholy Jacques, and captures appropriately his naysayer mien, and is effective in the wonderful Ages of Man passage beginning with "All the world's a stage."
Chris Hutchison pays Touchstone, the fool, and provides an energetic performance, but it is a busy, fussy one. He does earn his laughs with comically vulgar gestures that illustrate the lust lurking within the candy box. Greg Cote is amusing as LeBeau in the opening scenes. Sometimes the minor roles, almost invisible, can enhance a tableau. Miguel Angel Garcia adds interest as a happy-traveling forester, and Dain Geist is hilarious in pantomiming a tipsy priest.
This is a wonderful production, largely without ornamentation, and leaving it to script and actors to carry the show, and they carry it on their shoulders, in triumph. As they might carry its director, Masterson, who has done a superb job in grasping the spirit of the play and marshaling his troops into a jaunty, cohesive ensemble.
The University of Houston has dared greatly in presenting these works. If the historical drama falls short of what it might be, it still provides the fascination of great, world-shaking schemes, and the eloquence of the tragic deaths of the mighty — as well as lighter moments that capture the humor in the human animal. And the pastoral comedy could hardly be better, as consummate actors bring to exciting life the first meeting of lovers, their wooing and their marriage — indeed, a group wedding, as many of the younger characters join them in wedlock as well — well-played indeed.
See them both, not because they are free, though that is a generous benefit, but because they tackle the great themes that infuse our lives: competition, negotiation, marriage, friendship, betrayal, death itself and love — the aching need to connect with one another.
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