Bard's Bargain

Maybe it's some sort of psychic leftover energy from El Niño — whatever the reason, the muses of Thespis seem to be feeling particularly bountiful this season. The local theater scene has been ripe with terrific and inexpensive shows ranging from the silly to the sublime.

And leave it to that minor god Shakespeare and his free festival, produced by the University of Houston at Miller Outdoor Theatre, to cap off summer with Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew, two fine plays where silliness becomes sublimely edifying and raunchy ribaldry never seemed so smart.

Twelfth Night is one of the Bard's most produced comedies. It glimmers with all the conventions Shakespeare so adored: mistaken identities, bawdy scatological puns and misanthropic fuddy-duddies who try to spoil all the fun. Director Sidney Berger's wicked production makes the most of Shakespeare's astonishingly naughty wit.

Shipwrecked and lost on the Illyrian shore, noble-born Viola (Barbara Sims) disguises herself as a boy, becoming a page to Duke Orsino (Joel Sandel). He desires the beautiful Olivia (Leslie Maness) and sends Viola to carry trinkets and love notes to her. But with Shakespeare love is never easy, and the lovely Olivia doesn't care a whit for the handsome duke. She does, however, find his young page awfully appealing. To further complicate matters, Viola, trapped in her manly disguise, falls into a deep infatuation with her boss, the duke.

Scenes of the sweetest silliness ensue, as Olivia throws herself onto her knees in a tizzy of love, declaring her undying feelings for Viola, believing she is the duke's page. And Viola stands hang-jawed and wobbly-kneed in the presence of the noble Orsino.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, Sebastian (Daniel Magill), Viola's twin brother, washes ashore. As it turns out, the twins look so much alike that no one can tell them apart. It makes for a wonderfully tangled web to unweave before all is set right and love wins out, as it must.

As good as the central story line of amorous young noble folk is (carried out by very fine actors), what makes Berger's production especially enjoyable is the the secondary tale of what goes on among the bawdy bumble heads who attend to the lovers.

A complex and spirited performance comes from Rutherford Cravens, who plays Olivia's big-bellied Uncle Toby, a lascivious, red-faced and very funny bully whose life consists of mean practical jokes and "eat and drink." His fine partners in crime, Maria (Theo Lane Moffett), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Walton Wilson) and Feste the fool (James Belcher) make for a team of rakish clowns who create havoc wherever they go.

Hilarious and pathetic, Charles Sanders's yellow-stockinged Malvolio is simply wonderful. A long and very funny monologue showing Malvolio as the rarefied pompous ass creates the most memorable moment.

Combined with Susan Kelly's lovely costumes, the play makes for a great night of Shakespeare. Every theater lover ought to take advantage of it.Alternating with Twelfth Night is The Taming of the Shrew, an antiquated tale of a bad-tempered woman's coming of age under the hand of a hard-hearted man. Many contemporary women might have trouble stomaching the strange story, but director Beth Sanford has made the most of the politically questionable play.

In it a young, lovely and sought-after Bianca (Jennifer Cherry) can't marry until her older sister is betrothed. Of course, no man around wants the angry Katharina (Barbara Sims), who'd as soon kick a dog as love it. No man would desire her, that is, except Petruchio (Walton Wilson), who wants "to wive and thrive as best" he may. In other words, he will marry for money.

Besides her beauty, Katharina's saving grace is her large dowry, which Petruchio sets his misogynistic eye upon. Of course, Katharina's father, Baptista (Rutherford Cravens), decrees that Petruchio may have the hateful Kate if he can make her love him.

Thus, Petruchio sets about wooing the loathsome girl, whether she wants it or not. Somehow he marries her and takes her home, only to starve her into a submissive version of love.

Kate's taming is notorious (as is the folklore it's based upon). Her final speech remains one of the most controversial in Shakespeare's canon. The fiery woman is so turned around by her man that she proceeds to lecture her sister on wifely duties: "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign." Hard words for modern women to digest.

But on Saturday night that didn't stop a manly voice from hollering out from somewhere on the hill, "You tell 'em, Kate!" A smattering of laughter followed.

It was a curious moment for a curious play filled with strong performances, lovely costumes and lots of ideas to argue over.

Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew run on alternating nights through August 14 at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park, (713)284-8350. Free.

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Lee Williams