Ken Ruta and Bree Welch in The Tempest
Ken Ruta and Bree Welch in The Tempest

Magic and Death

One of the sweetest lines Shakespeare ever wrote comes from The Tempest, a romance that takes place on an enchanted island rich with spirits, monsters and young lusty love. The line comes toward the end of the story, when Prospero, the central character who learns the simple virtues of forgiveness and faith, reminds us all that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on." It is a magical moment in the Houston Shakespeare Festival's magical production of what is commonly thought to be the great bard's last play.

The complicated story opens on the ocean, with Prospero watching the result of his sorcery from the shoreline of his island. For out on the sea, a violent tempest conjured up by Prospero is tossing about a ship full of men. When Prospero's beautiful daughter Miranda begs her father to save them, he instructs the spirit Ariel to scatter the sailors safely across his magical island, where all sorts of strange things occur. The past comes back to haunt everyone on stage, and of course the lovely though lonely Miranda finds lasting love with one of the lost survivors. And while this is not one of Shakespeare's best-ordered romances, it is perhaps one of his most mature, as it speaks with an elegiac grace about the bounties of forgiveness and the ordinary and human magic of abiding compassion.

From the opening scene, director Sidney Berger shapes this lyrical play with a charmed imagination. The storm raging on the sea is created by a long banner of blue and white waves, fluttered across the front of the stage by two silvery spirits. The ship is a rounded platform upstage over which the men tumble about as they try to figure out what to do.


Houston Shakespeare Festival

Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Drive, 281-373-3386.

Through August 12. Free.

And the cast Berger has put together deepens this story with tender wit and clownish grace. Ken Ruta's Prospero has a long and bony face, shaped with lines and crevices of wisdom. And he speaks with a musical voice, never shouting, always melodious. Justin Doran plays Ferdinand, Miranda's love interest, with boyish humor. We laugh at the goofy truth of all his desires as he bumbles about, proclaiming his love. Likewise, Bree Welch's girlish Miranda is full of amusing adolescent desire. And Rutherford Cravens, who plays Stephano the drunk butler, who imagines himself a prince among men, pockets the entire show every time he stumbles out on stage. He had the audience roaring with laughter by the end of the evening.

The Shakespeare Festival, which plays at Miller Outdoor Theatre, generally opens during the last weekend of July, an almost painful time of the year in Houston's weather. But with productions like this one, the warm evening breeze feels wonderfully enchanting.

The companion tragedy running with The Tempest this year is Shakespeare's wonderfully macabre Titus Andronicus. The bloodiest of all of Shakespeare's plays, the story about a great Roman general's undoing revels in violence and gore. By the end so many dead bodies fill up the stage that the only characters still alive have to step over them to get anywhere. It's not only the number of dead that makes this play so wicked, it's the horrific manner in which some are mutilated that makes all this so outrageous. There are the usual and multiple stabbings and hangings, and a few hands get chopped off, but when boys commit rape while giggling madly and a mother dines on her own children, we know we've crossed over into territory that feels somehow weirdly modern in our new millennium of graphic horror.

Director Carolyn Houston Boone has found some clever ways of dealing with this over-the-top tale that play down the violence while adding to the creep factor of all this blood. Chopped-up bodies in plastic bags, severed heads bobbing about in a fish tank, and bloody stumps all appear on stage and look as surprisingly and beautifully theatrical as they are disturbing. Another smart thing Boone does is develop overt symbols throughout the play. Empty boots represent soldiers who have died. A red ball tossed about lets us know that someone is about to die. And while this might sound cheesy, it all works with fantastic wit.

There are two real cast standouts. Rutherford Cravens makes a powerful Titus, the Roman general who starts out the story as a perfect fool. When he comes back from battle victorious and the Romans offer him the crown, he turns it down and then gives it to the ridiculous Saturninus, who is played with savagely Bacchanalian glee by Matthew Carter. As the night goes on and the bodies pile up, Titus learns a lesson about following rules that make no sense, which is what he does when he gives the crown to Saturninus, the oldest but stupidest son of the late emperor.

In the end, all the death and destruction leaves one oddly delighted. There is an almost campy quality to this gruesome tale about revenge. And it's a strange delight to see it executed with such wild power.


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