Bard Beauty

Perhaps August is not the best time for Shakespeare in the park, especially with the air hanging over Miller Outdoor Theatre in an enormous blanket of steaming heat. But even the 90-degree sauna of summertime can't stop the power of this year's Houston Shakespeare Festival. Filled with homicidal fits of jealousy, talking statues, damsels come back from the dead, hilariously foppish clowns and the sort of lovemaking that only the greatest writer of the English language could conjure, the 2003 festival offers one of the only ways Houstonians might enjoy themselves without conditioned air.

Opening weekend began with The Winter's Tale, the strange story of a king crazed with jealousy that is often called a tragicomedy. Having the unlikely combination of both long winters of sadness and a happy ending, the appellation seems apt.

The complex story opens with King Leontes (Daniel Magill) trying to convince his good friend Polixenes (Jim Johnson) to stay longer in Sicilia before returning to Bohemia. When Leontes fails, his very pregnant wife Queen Hermione (Leslie Maness) succeeds in getting Polixenes to linger. That piques the king's lurid imagination. He decides that his wife must be sleeping with Polixenes and that the child she's carrying must be the other man's bastard child.

The opening narrative is muddy at best. As is often the case with director Sidney Berger's Shakespeare, these scenes are perhaps too broadly acted. Great sweeping gestures from the king and queen, combined with monotone, booming speeches, turns the language and the emotional nuances of the opening into mush.

Once the opening is dispatched, the cast seems to find its center. Magill settles into Leontes and his jealousy develops a shape and an edge. Everything turns tragic when he won't listen to reason. Of course the queen is faithful, but the king orders the murders of everyone from Polixenes to the child of the pregnant queen. Woe be to Leontes; not only does his wife die from grief, but so does the couple's first child, Mamillius (Charity Van Tassel).

From there, the play travels ahead some 16 years and ends up in Bohemia. Polixenes managed to escape Leontes's deadly decree and has lived in his homeland, raising a handsome son who's fallen in love with a lowly shepherd's daughter. Naturally, the dark haired damsel Perdita (Sarah Prikryl) is actually the grown-up babe that King Leontes had ordered killed long ago.

Somehow everyone finds their way back to Sicilia, where Leontes is still grieving. There's a strange scene involving a statue coming to life that is surprisingly moving, given the fantastical nature of the moment. And of course, most, if not all ends well, everyone being much wiser.

Berger eventually finds a majesty in the strangeness that renders the story into one of the most moving productions of the festival's recent history. A lot of energy comes from Kate Revnell-Smith, who plays Paulina with diva-like confidence, she scolds Leontes for all he's worth.

As the pair of shepherds who find Perdita as a babe (Oedipus-like), William Hardy and Scott Fults make a funny pair of clowns, cavorting through dances and trying like the devil to maneuver their way to the king. And the entire show looks terrific, thanks to John Gow. His wintery, barren trees eventually give way to spring-like green foliage. Paige A. Willson's red and gold costumes are also beautiful.

As compelling as The Winter's Tale might be, the real star of the festival is Much Ado About Nothing, directed with vivacious wit and glee by Rob Bundy (Artistic Director of Stages Theatre). He's transported this much performed comedy to 19th-century Mexico and the clever choice works well. Gow has created a charming world of stuccoed walls and curling iron gates, while Margaret Crowley's flouncy dresses with enormous gathered skirts are magical.

Jason Douglas manages to steal the production with his smart, drop-dead sexy and hilariously funny Benedick. He's the man who swears he will never marry, only to be undone by the cantankerous and beautiful Beatrice (Elena Coates). Beatrice, in true shrewish fashion, also swears she won't marry. The two hotheads are tricked into admitting their mutual adoration by conniving friends.

Of course, as this is Shakespeare, multiple plots are hatched. Benedick is not the only lover. There's also young Claudio (Daniel Magill) who falls for pretty Hero (Sarah Prikryl). Their love is almost foiled by the evil machinations of Don John (played by an appropriately nervous and twitchy George Brock).

That a blithering idiot named Dogberry helps save the day is typical of Shakespeare's scathing humor. Typical of the laugh-till-your-sides-hurt momentum, Dogberry is played to his full throttle, hysterically red-faced, sputtering end by Rutherford Cravens.

This is Shakespeare as you're not likely to see it again for a long time; it's almost enough to make you forget the heat.

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Lee Williams