Tracie Thomason (right) as Nerissa, Kenn Hopkins as Morocco and Amelia Hammond Fischer as Portia in The Merchant of Venice
Tracie Thomason (right) as Nerissa, Kenn Hopkins as Morocco and Amelia Hammond Fischer as Portia in The Merchant of Venice
Photo courtesy the University of Houston

Pack Your Food and Drinks; The Houston Shakespeare Festival is a Week Away

If it's the heighth of summer then it must be time for the annual Houston Shakespeare Festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre produced by the University of Houston's School of Theatre & Dance. This year's offerings – Macbeth (tragedy) and The Merchant of Venice (technically a comedy) – will be presented with the usual combination of professional actors and students.

Tiger Reel, artistic director of Action! Theatre Company in California who is directing Merchant, has set this production up as a TV game show – an approach he developed with mentor Jack Young, head of UH’s Graduate Acting Program who'll be directing Macbeth and reprising his role as Shylock in Merchant.

“The game is set up to find her a suitable husband. The idea of tying it into a reality show like The Bachelor, ” Reel says. Venice becomes Wall Street as merchants become traders. Reel calls Merchant a modern kind of play because of the flaws in some of its main characters but agrees with the phrase “problem play” that's been attached to it.

“It's a problem play because of the anti-Semitism. Once you kind of get past the need for an actual hero in this play – which is very much like a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino in a way – you can still kind of root for people in a bad situation who are trying to do what they think is right even though it's wrong. Merchant is called a comedy because there's weddings at the end and no one dies at the end and because it's not a tragedy or history it's got kind of lumped into the comedies,” Reeel says.

It'll be fast-paced as well. “We've gotten this down to a 90-minute play with an intermission in the middle,” Reel says.

Professional actor Mirron Willis (Henry IV, Part I at last year's Houston Shakespeare Festival) has returned, this time in the roles of Antonio in Merchant and Banquo in Macbeth. His switches won't be just costume changes.

“Antonio is kind of a loner and Banquo is one of Macbeth's good friends.” One is rich, the other not so rich; one a warrior, the other pretty far removed from that life. “The big question in the dressing room is what character are we doing tonight? It's a mental, physical and artistic challenge.”

Willis, who spent three years with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has a commanding voice which he's been using in audiobook recordings (check out some of the newest from author Walter Mosley) and in recent work with the Houston Symphony. As Willis says, if you're one of those people who has never understood Shakespeare, come out and hear and see his words played out on the Miller stage and you may have an epiphany.

Macbeth will be performed July 31, Aug. 2, 4, 6 and 8. The Merchant of Venice will be performed August 1, 5, 7 and 9. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. All performances begin at 8:30 p.m. Free.

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