I hate to say this, but summer trips to Miller Outdoor Theatre's — and UH's — Houston Shakespeare Festival had come to have a whiff of duty to them. The productions faced so many challenges, from the very un-Globe-like August heat to the technical challenges of playing both to the seated audience and to the hill. And because the productions usually featured the same combination of performers and directors, there was little sense of adventure to the proceedings, despite the fact that some of the productions were very good.
But the new director of the UH Drama Department, and of the Houston Shakespeare Festival, Steve Wallace, has shaken things up. He replaced the festival's founder, and only director, Sidney Berger. As reported by Everett Evans in the Houston Chronicle, Wallace is bringing in guest directors and actors, and generally injecting fresh blood and new thinking into the festival, which hadn't had a leadership change in 37 years.
The first results are in, and they range from brilliant to excellent. I'll start with the brilliant: I've never gotten more sheer pleasure out of a HSF performance than I did at the opening night of The Taming of the Shrew.
UH professor Jack Young directed the show with wit, passion and panache, creating big pictures on the stage that delighted both the seated audience and the big crowd way up the hill. The sound was also unusually clear and consistent.
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Young has thoroughly rethought Shrew, presenting it as a bright, over-the-top farce that a modern audience can relate to. Instead of groaning at lines about wives obeying their husbands, you can laugh at the nutty quality of all the characters, and simply delight in the commedia dell'arte-style energy — in the clowning, in other words.
Luke Thomas Eddy as Petruchio, the "tamer," and Tracie Thomason as Kate the Shrew bring tremendous vitality to their performances. Young stages their first duel of wits in a literal boxing ring. Kate tries to clobber Petruchio even while she's blasting him verbally. Eddy plays Petruchio Muhammed Ali-style, slipping Kate's punches with the greatest of ease.
As Shakespeare tells the story, it's important that the hellion Kate marry somebody — anybody — so that her more presentable sister Bianca (Amelia Hammond) can then be married. Bianca is supposed to be such a docile lamb — and her father Baptista (Paul Hope) so rich — that all the eligible bachelors of Padua want to marry her.
One of Young's best ideas is this: the wonderfully bouffanted Hammond plays Bianca as a rather lusty air-head, rather than a goody-goody. Hammond has hilarious scenes of vanity and carnality, which, given Bianca's good-girl reputation, make sister Kate more attractive by comparison. Kate is "tamed" by Petruchio, but at least she's not a hypocrite.
Anyway, there's no need to approach this play with your thinking cap on. It's too hot to cover your head, anyway. Just sit back and enjoy the romp, as the audience on opening night did. I've never heard so much laughter and enthusiastic applause from an HSF audience.
Othello has drawn more buzz than Shrew, largely because of the presence of two impressive guest artists. The Wire cast member Seth Gilliam plays the tragic Moorish warrior who marries so well, and then most humanly destroys his good thing, and his good wife. Gilliam lives up to his billing; his Othello is both maddening and heart-breaking.
Othello is directed by the OBIE Award-winning Leah Gardiner. Othello doesn't lend itself to the kind of extravaganza that Young presents with Shrew. Outside of a very few scenes, it's really a chamber piece, with Iago virtually whispering his poisonous lies about good Desdemona's infidelities into Othello's ear. But Gardiner's direction nicely frames the combination of fire and stateliness in Othello's character.
Much of the Shrew cast repeats in Othello.
Shrew director Jack Young plays a convincingly malevolent Iago — to the point that he got booed during curtain call. Tracie Thomason's Desdemona represents a 180-degree turn from her brawling Kate. Desdemona is such a pure soul, and so undeserving of Othello's Iago-provoked jealousy, that her character could easily come across as bland and one-dimensional. But Thomason brings passion and depth to her character's protestations of innocence. As in Shrew, the entire cast is strong.
To be honest, some members of the audience couldn't help but laugh at Iago's deviltry, and gullible Othello's predicament. What a sucker. But by the time Othello tells Desdemona to say her prayers because he's about to kill her, a powerful emotion had kicked in, and the crowd around me leaned forward in rapt attention. Watching it, I couldn't help but say to myself, he's not really going to kill her, is he? Even though, of course, Othello has been killing Desdemona for centuries.
The power of the production is this: As the climax begins, you can't believe he's going to do it, and then you believe that he must. Fate, also known as human nature, kicks in.
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