A Dreamy Midsummer Night

The wicked city of Sodom's got nothing on Venice, where big-breasted, red-lipped women stand on every street corner dressed in nothing but black garters, silk stockings and curve-hugging skivvies that look like undergarments from a futuristic brothel. At least that's the way director Rutherford Cravens sees the place in his fleshy, sexy, lush and funny take on William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in this summer's Houston Shakespeare Festival.

In Cravens's Venice of marbled columns and iron-studded doors, the pimps wear cheap, pin-striped suits and grab girls' asses like they own them. Drunks like Lucio (Joel Sandel) have free reign of the street as they swig off their silver flasks. But that's all about to change if the regal Duke (Daniel Magill) has his way. He's got a plan for reform. Of course in the world of Shakespeare, all plans backfire and plots twist around in ways that only the mighty Bard can make plausible. These twists are made even more curious in this visually flamboyant production with naughty costumes by Matthew Bartkowiak and a seedy, comic-book set by John Gow. In fact, Cravens's cast is having so much bawdy fun with this script of hard-hearted hypocrisy that the curious turns to edge-of-your-seat evil.

The weirdness starts as soon as the Duke decides he wants to clean up the city. He immediately plans a mysterious trip out of town and proclaims Angelo (a tight-assed puritan played by the slithering Foster Davis) head honcho of the new moral police. A zealous letter-of-the-law type, Angelo proves well suited to the job. Soon enough, he scoops the doe-eyed Claudio (Dwight Clark) and his angelic but pregnant sweetheart Juliet (Kara Greenberg) into his net of badly behaving citizens. Young and in love, Claudio and Juliet have been doing the deed, even though they aren't legally married. They may be married in their hearts, but that doesn't matter, says Angelo. By law Claudio is a fornicator and has to die.

The draconian decision appalls everyone. Even the most rigid moralizers in the city, including the provost (Richard Kuehn) who runs the prison, think Angelo's gone mad. After all, Claudio's just a kid. And in the den of iniquity that is Venice, it doesn't make much sense for Angelo to make an example of him.

In desperation, Claudio's pretty sister Isabella (Kelli Cousins) is summoned. Maybe she can talk some sense into Angelo. After all, she's studying to be a nun; surely the self-righteous Angelo will listen to walking, talking virtue in the flesh. Trouble is, when Isabella shows up, Angelo seems to fall a little bit in love with the good sister, and this frustrates him to no end. He plots a way to get into her novice knickers that's more evil than any whorehouse could ever be.

Creeping along the edges of this story are a handful of wonderfully lascivious characters including Drake Simpson's hysterically nasty Pompey, a low-down "bawd" who rounds up girls and dough for a cathouse madam called Mistress Overdone (played with relish by Deborah Hope).

In the end, of course, good triumphs over bad, but not before we are asked to examine certain truths about virtue, which can include, it would seem, a lovely romp in the hay.

The world of fairies, lovers and magical potions in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is rendered in traditional storybook images in director Sidney Berger's production of this much loved comedy. In fact, designer Gow's bewitched forest -- where Nick Bottom, the weaver (Cravens), is turned into an ass by the impish Puck (Magill) and four young runaways fall in and out of mad love over the course of one short night -- looks like the Jungian archetype of a spellbound dreamscape. In the middle of the woods stands a majestic, twisting gray oak that casts magical shadows over anyone who chances beneath it. Mossy rocks make pleasant places to perch, and the Fairy Queen lies down on a field of poppies.

Traditional too are Paige A. Willson's lovely costumes. The fairies wave foot-long fingers as they tend to their Queen Titania (Hope) and her gossamer wings; the young lovers wear flowing gowns and shirts, and bad boy Puck is dressed like a Russian ice dancer with his bottom half covered in spandex and his naked chest painted with flowering vines. Even Bottom's ass head looks it was cut from a child's furry toy.

For all this tradition, there is something zany, fresh and surprisingly powerful in Berger's production. Most of the energy comes from the young lovers, who bring a very human sense of urgency to the enchanted world of fairies. Erin Kidwell's Helena and Kelli Cousins's Hermia can catfight with the best, hiking up their shimmering pastel gowns and kicking and clawing at whomever gets in the way of their hearts' desires. Even stronger are Foster Davis as Lysander and Drake Simpson as Demetrius; these two rivals are perfectly matched. All four bring intelligence to the text too, so that every pun and double entendre is deliciously clear.

Magill's hyperactive Puck grows on you. He runs in annoying circles as he listens to Oberon's bidding, and he can't seem to stop grinning and giggling as he races through the forest. But all this nervous energy eventually makes sense, and Magill's Puck becomes the funniest and most delightful mischief-maker to trip across a Houston stage this year.

Because of its popularity, A Midsummer Night's Dream is hard to make fresh. But Berger proves that with the right touch the old can be made new again.

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Lee Williams