This year's Houston Shakespeare Festival offerings of Antony and Cleopatra and As You Like It give a Booker T. Washington graduate, Brandon Dirden, his first chance to return to Houston in two years. A winner of an OBIE award last year for his star turn as Boy Willie in a New York City revival of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, Dirden will play Julius Caesar and then Duke Frederick/Corin on alternate nights. Dirden's wife, Crystal Dickinson, will also do the tragedy-to-comedy switch, playing Cleopatra and then Celia in the annual festival produced by the University of Houston.
Although Dirden is a veteran of the Georgia Shakespeare Festival and the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, he hadn't performed Caesar in this play before, and the rehearsals alone changed his mind about the historic figure. ''I thought he was just a master manipulator and hungry for power. These last couple days, I've learned there was so much more to him. That maybe he isn't as maniacal as I thought he was. He is a man who is very passionate about his immediate family and the people he considers his family. And he is a man who has been wounded. He loves his sister dearly; he loves Mark Antony dearly. When Mark Antony's behavior is proven to be less than honorable, that really hurts.''
While he describes As You Like It as ''just delightful, all about love and hope,'' it's clear Dirden also wants Houston audiences to embrace Shakespeare's historic tragedy. ''I think the opportunity doesn't come along very often to see Antony and Cleopatra. It's a big, huge, epic play.''
See Antony and Cleopatra at 8:30 p.m. on August 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 and As You Like It at 8:30 p.m. on August 3, 7, 9 and 11. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. For information, visit milleroutdoortheatre.com. Free.
Aug. 2-4, 8:30 p.m.; Aug. 6-11, 8:30 p.m., 2013