Befitting the Bard

The Houston Shakespeare Festival thunders in grand style across Miller Outdoor Theatre as one of the best that producing director Sidney Berger has put together in years. Pairing one of the Bard's most obscure works, King John, with one of his most popular, Romeo and Juliet, Berger has filled the vast venue at Hermann Park with fiery characters, flashing swords, Machiavellian intrigue and the most famously ill-fated case of puppy love in the Western canon.

Under the direction of Rutherford Cravens, King John provides a disturbing map of the psychological terrain of politicians who lust for power. At the opening, several factions are vying for the throne of England since King Richard has died. Most, including Cardinal Pandulph (Kent Johnson), behave badly as they attempt to seize control. The story is admittedly murky. But this is a play driven by some wonderfully compelling characters rather than its watered-down plot, and the good, the bad and the snake-hearted all have been brought to dastardly life by Cravens's fine cast.

As King John, Joel Sandel captures the vacillating cowardliness of the heartless ruler. Fearful of losing his throne, he condemns his sweet-faced and much loved teenage cousin (and would-be usurper) to death. But he hasn't the spine to command his right-hand man, Hubert (Kirk Dautrive), to do the despicable deed; instead he hems and haws and wheedles his way to the point, only to reverse himself when he runs into opposition. Sandel's thin, fine-boned features work like a menacing blade over these scenes. John's cruelty creeps in through the back door of consciousness, stealing upon us and mutating into horrific moments of onstage suspense.

One of the best happens during the death scene with Hubert and the sweet-faced Authur (Erin Kidwell). King John has ordered a torturous execution, which is made all the more terrible when we hear young Authur plead for his life. Kidwell's coltish Authur beams with a sunny, earnest goodness. And Dautrive as the honorable Hubert is convincingly torn between his duty and his heart. The scene is one of the best in the production as it captures the tyranny as well as the horrifically whimsical nature of unchecked political power.

Also strong is Philip Lehl as Phillip the Bastard. He, like many of Shakespeare's bastards, is the most diabolically clever of all the demons in King John's court. And Lehl enjoys every rancorous, raunchy joke the Bastard (as he's referred to throughout the script) tells, earning some of the biggest laughs of the night for his mean-spirited though utterly intelligent observations about everything from the other characters' clothes to the foolishness of pride.

As a group, this is an unsavory lot, and they're a great deal of fun to watch as they work through the wicked vicissitudes of government. Making the entire production truly beautiful to watch is Kevin Ridgon's skeletal set of scaffolding and rolling fog. KC Marks's stately crimson-colored costumes become more and more rarefied as John falls deeper and deeper into political trouble.

King John is rarely performed. The plot meanders, and the deaths (there are many) often seem arbitrary, but the play is ripe with strange and very human characters who make dramatic and infuriating choices. And this production captures every devilish turn.

Though any teen can rent multiple versions of Romeo and Juliet from the corner video store, there's nothing like seeing it on stage -- if it's done well. Thankfully, director Sidney Berger's version of the well-known tale is so charming that even the most jaded video-savvy adolescent ought to get a little quivery inside when this Romeo (Daniel Magill) reaches the end of the tale and lifts the sip of ironically tragic poison to his young and handsome lips.

Although Romeo and Juliet is the original star-crossed love story, this production is strongest when Romeo hooks up with his brazen and boyishly angst-ridden cohorts, in part because Berger's direction is freer and more energetic in these scenes. Sexual innuendo flies fast and furious between Magill's lovesick Romeo and Philip Lehl's scene-stealing Mercutio. Together these actors get into gear with a wonderfully foreboding darkness.

Lehl's Mercutio is a black-hearted intellect who fights for fun and ripples with the sort of confused complexity that makes coming of age so poetically compelling (think Pearl Jam and Jack Kerouac). Drifting off in his own world is Magill's lanky Romeo, who lives to fall in love. First there's Rosaline, who's quickly replaced by the more beautiful Juliet. When Mercutio and Romeo get together during their scenes of boyish ribaldry, the stage blazes. And when Lehl's Mercutio battles Tybalt (Josh Morrison) with the sort of playfully wicked overconfidence that undoes the young, the scene is stunning for its elegant and subtle sadness.

Less successful are the love scenes, as the very pretty Jennifer Cherry's bratty and headstrong Juliet seems finally too serious and mature to actually engage in the sort of wild-child behavior that would bring the 14-year-old Juliet to such a foolish and tragic end.

Still, the death scene is helped along with clouds of fog and appropriately sad music. The Capulets and the Montagues learn their hard lesson once again, and the audience can go home knowing they've seen a live and truly lovely version of the grand tragedy that VCRs and TV screens have diminished so.

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Lee Williams