Shakespeare with a Twist

Every flaming hot summer for close to a quarter of a century, the University of Houston has been bringing Shakespeare to the public. It's a fine gift. The shows are absolutely free. And though the plays are performed outdoors, these August nights are balmy. The temperature lingers at 80 degrees. It's easy to spread a quilt across the darkened grass on the hill of the Miller Outdoor Theatre and stretch out for a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona or King Lear, the two plays being offered in repertoire this summer.

It may not be one of his best comedies, but The Two Gentlemen of Verona is still Shakespeare; and Rutherford Cravens's direction of this rather odd play is amusing and lively, even if he has made some inexplicable choices.

Valentine (Luis Galindo) and Proteus (Foster Davis) are best buds from the town of Verona. But at the play's opening, they are about to part. Valentine is off to Milan: "He after honor hunts." Proteus, on the other hand, stays home. He's in love with a hometown girl named Julia (Alissa Alban).

Of course, Shakespeare, being, well, Shakespeare, foreshadows the irony of the young men's choices in his characters' provocative names. Valentine, who arrives in Milan only to fall head over heels for a rich girl named Silvia (Amy Elizabeth McKenna), turns out to be the true lover, while Proteus is as fickle as can be.

When Proteus is sent off to Milan, he meets up with Valentine, takes one look at Silvia, and wants her for himself. No matter that Valentine's been his compadre, his amigo, his best bro' since way back when. No matter that back home in Verona, Julia's busy pining away for her one and only. Proteus turns out to be the worst sort of backstabbing, female-groping creep, who won't take no for an answer even though Silvia herself despises him.

Of course, since this is a comedy, everything has to turn out fine in the end, as impossible as that may seem. Add to this forced ending the fact that the whole play has been set sometime in the 1960s, and you get one very bewildering, though strangely entertaining, night in the theater. What, you might ask, does the '60s have to do with The Two Gentlemen of Verona? Is it that Proteus wants free love? Or maybe that Proteus is a terrific example of the self-centered, baby-boomer me generation? Even weirder is that in backwoods Verona, all the girls are dressed in big flouncy dresses with bouffant hairdos like they just stepped off a Happy Days set. But in the hip city of Milan, girls go around in go-go boots, bell-bottoms and frosted lipstick, à la Laugh In.

Even if you can't figure out the "nuances" of this particular production, the performances are sound. Galindo's Valentine is especially virile and swoon-worthy. And McKenna's Silvia manages to be both flouncy rich girl and true-blue lover as she struts about in her patent-leather boots, turning up her pretty nose at all Proteus's nasty advances.

While the Festival's production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is inexplicably quirky, the production of King Lear is as dull and lumpy as a bowl of cold oatmeal. (But cold oatmeal is still healthful.)

Most everyone knows the story of Lear, though some might need their memories jiggled. Lear (Charles Krohn) is the foolish old monarch who concludes that it's time to hand over the business of ruling to his daughters. To that end, he divvies up his kingdom among his daughters according to who "doth love [him] most." The daughter with the most love gets the most land.

Silly old Lear. He gives everything to Goneril (Christianne Mays) and Regan (Amy McKenna), his jade-hearted girls. They say they love their daddy "dearer than eyesight, space and liberty," but deep down, they're the lowest sort of dog-daughters, who'd send their sick old papa out in a raging night storm just to teach him a lesson.

On the other hand, Cordelia (Gwendolyn McLarty), young, angelic, golden-tressed Cordelia, loves her father so much that she won't even try to put it into words. And since the old man is such a fool for flattery, he doesn't give his favorite girl so much as a blade of grass. Big mistake. Huge. Tragic-sized, in fact.

A secondary plot concerning the Earl of Gloucester (James Belcher) underscores the tragedy in Shakespeare's tale about familial love and the terrible sadness of those who grow old before they are wise. Add to these enormous themes an on-stage storm, an on-stage battle, several sword fights and some of the most quoted lines in western drama, and you've got a tremendously difficult play to produce.

And the difficulties are glaringly evident in this production. Strangely enough, the director (Sidney Berger) and the actors seemed too reverent, too careful, too serious with the play. No one on stage appeared to be loving the gorgeousness of the lines, loving the audacity of the script. Instead, the whole production is labored, heavy and serious, without being wildly and passionately tragic.

The actors and actresses, especially those playing the daughters, are often stuck downstage, awkwardly facing forward, practically yelling their lines in their deepest, gruffest, most serious "Shakespearean"-sounding voices. This shouting was especially odd coming from McLarty's Cordelia, whose voice is described by Lear as being "ever soft." And while Krohn delivered Lear's lines in a sonorous voice, he captured little of the egomaniacal childishness, the rage and then the heartbreaking shame of a man who makes such huge mistakes in judgment. Only Rutherford Cravens as the Earl of Kent, Belcher, and Kent Johnson, as Edgar, brought real sadness to the stage on Saturday night.

Still, it isn't often that you'll have the opportunity to see King Lear live, much less free. Even if this production is a bit timid, it's good for you, and worth every penny.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona plays through August 14 and King Lear plays through August 15. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Drive, Hermann Park. 284-8352 or 743-3003.


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