Why wait until Rio's Olympic Games in August to see world-class sport? Head over to Miller Outdoor Theatre right now to savor the alfresco delights of the University of Houston's annual Shakespeare Festival, where combat – on the battlefield and in the bedroom – lies heavy in the air, perfuming all. For its 42nd season, HSF presents two of the Immortal's most boisterous works, the cloudy comedy Much Ado About Nothing and the rousing flag-waver Henry V.
Written about the same time, c. 1599, these disparate plays strike neatly at the same theme: Henry is all manly valor and the personal sacrifices required to become a good king; Much Ado replaces the battlefield with sexy banter, using former lovers as epic fencers, dueling for their independence and the right to be loved on equal terms. Both plays, like everything Shakespeare wrote, are eternally destined to be relevant, no matter in what century they're performed. Can you possibly imagine that in 500 years, we will gather at an outdoor theater to watch the collected works of...Arthur Miller? I don't think so.
Much Ado is classic Bard comedy, filled with sparkling wit, a masked ball, eavesdropping, mistaken identity, the lowest of low comedy shtick (that would be constable Dogberry with his Keystone Kops sidekicks, who tire us quickly), and the inevitable Shakespearean darkness that threatens the happy ending. But the gloom is quickly dispelled, lovers united, the villain caught and punished tomorrow, and for now, let's dance. “Strike up, pipers!” is the final line.
For its Act IV misanthropy (thinking chaste Hero has debased herself, both dad Leonato and fiancé Claudio denounce her in no uncertain terms: “foul-tainted flesh” is one of the milder epithets), the ever fresh sparring of Beatrice (Demetria Thomas) and Benedick (Patrick Poole), along the actors' chemistry, takes the sting out and lets us in on the joke from the beginning. You could hear the audience purr its appreciation when feisty Beatrice lets loose her zingers on equally spirited Benedick. The matched couple, outwardly disparaging but inwardly yearning, are the play's heart, the reason for all this ado. Thomas and Poole react beautifully together, casting their barbs with precision. We know from the start they're meant for each other. During her eavesdropping scene to get a better vantage point, Thomas glides to the bench behind the potted palm. It's fairly silly and completely out of character, but the sheer exuberance of the gesture brought down the house. And Poole is just as physical: all puffed pride. During his eavesdropping scene, he flattens himself against the wall and skitters across the set or jumps over the stone fountain, rolling to the floor like a determined Navy SEAL. Then he strikes a pose as if nothing mattered at all.
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Both these stylish actors are Masters graduates from the University of Houston Professional Actors Training Program, and we are happy for their return. May they come back again soon.
The rest of the cast is game, indeed, some more so. Herman Gambhir, so memorable in Stages' The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, is that “plain-dealing villain” Don John, the one who sets in motion the plot to defame Hero. Shakespeare gives him no motive other than that he's out for no good; it's his nature. “Let me be that I am and seek not to alter me,” he says slyly during his entrance. And we believe him. Susie Parr and David Muynh perfectly convey Shakespeare's pointed satire of conventional sweethearts, the cardboard Hero and Claudio, characters who seem to be in this play only to show how lively Beatrice and Benedick are. Andrew Garrett's boot-licking Borachio was appropriately smarmy; Jay Mast's Don Pedro was stalwart; and Harry McEnerny's Dogberry was funny with his malapropisms until he wasn't. The audience, though, gave him a fine round of applause at curtain call. Kat Cordes, as sympathetic Ursala, and Meg Rodgers, as compromised Margaret, both small roles to be sure, made the most out of them with crisp diction and personal stage flair.
Director Jack Young sets Much Ado at the turn of last century in an adobe Texas plantation, which does no harm at all to Shakespeare, and provides costume designer Jodie Daniels an ideal opportunity for some picturesque mutton sleeves and cotton parasols. Even Teddy Roosevelt gallops up San Juan Hill during the masquerade. When Beatrice and Benedick volley Shakespeare's sexy iambic pentameter back and forth like Federer and Nadal, what more could you want on a lazy, humid evening in Houston?
Much Ado About Nothing continues on August 2, 4, 6. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. All performances begin at 8:15 p.m. For information, call 281-373-3386 or milleroutdoortheatre.com. Free.