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A Jug of Wine, a Picnic Basket, As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra: It's Houston Shakespeare Festival Time

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Within six weeks of moving to New York City, Houston-native Brandon Dirden had a part on Broadway. He called his wife back in Atlanta, said go ahead and quit your job as a Spellman College professor, we can make it here.

After his first show closed, he didn't work on Broadway again for three years. Dirden (who laughs as he tells this story on himself: "Broadway shows are few and far between" ) went on to forge a solid career particularly in regional theater and last year he won an OBIE for his star turn as Boy Willie in a New York City revival of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson.

He is back in Houston to play Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra and then Duke Frederick/Corin in As You Like It on alternate nights as part of the Houston Shakespeare Festival which is produced by the University of Houston. Direden's wife, Crystal Dickinson, will also do the tragedy to comedy switch, playing Cleopatra and then Celia.

Dirden is a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School where he concentrated on math and science. They didn't have a theater program, but he says they had an after school club whose members would go to all kinds of speech and debate tournaments. At Morehouse College in Atlanta he did his undergrad work in math and drama and came back to Houston in the summers to work at Shell Chemical Company, he says. He took courses in theater at nearby Spellman but wanted more training to pursue it professionally and that took him to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign -- which is also where he met his future wife -- to get his MFA in acting. He even served as a job reference for Dickinson when Spellman College had an emergency opening for a professor.

Although Dirden is a veteran of the Georgia Shakespeare Festival and North Carolina Shakespeare, he hadn't played Caesar in this play before.

And although he has left math and science behind as a career, he says he still employs an analytical approach to understand the characters he plays. "I think my approach to the work is much more analytical than people would assume. I think a lot of people assume that acting is just about feeling and emotions. But there really is a lot of problem solving going on. My engineering background, the way you creatively approach solutions to various problems, I think that really helps my approach to creating a character."

The work he did during 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."

As for Duke Frederick, however, Dirden says simply "There's nothing redeemable about this guy."

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 Anthony and Cleopatra. It's a big huge epic play."

Dirden says his family will be out in force at Miller Outdoor Theatre -- led by his mother who he describes as the best public relations person ever.

Antony and Cleopatra runs August 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and As You Like it performances will be on August 3, 7, 9, 11. 8:30 p.m. at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. Free tickets for the covered seats are available on the day of performance between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the Miller Theatre Box Office. Free tickets are limited to four per person age 16 or over. Any tickets remaining will be given out one hour before curtain.

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