The Houston Shakespeare Festival

Forget the endless rain, the suffocating heat, the blasted bugs — now is the summer of love at the Houston Shakespeare estival. And the smoldering heat onstage at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park will go a long way toward making you forget about the weather outside.

The most famous teenage lovers of all time are especially hot in director Carolyn Houston Boone's inventive and utterly captivating rendition of Romeo and Juliet. From the moment the curtain rises, it's apparent that this is not your high school English-class version of the Bard's most beloved tale. Jonathan Middents's set takes us to a sort of Dick Tracy-style metropolis. The outlined set pieces, complete with tall city buildings, shadowy sidewalks and moody streetlights, look like they were lifted out of a 1930s cartoon. And the Montagues and Capulets, who start off the story getting ready for a fight, dress like old-style gangsters in Margaret Crowley's smooth costumes. Even Shakespeare's lingo gets delivered in Brooklyn accents. All this might sound wrong to the purists out there, but it doesn't take long before the whole mise-en-scène that Boone creates feels like the world Shakespeare intended all along. Once the Capulets and the Montagues pull out their switchblades and handguns and slice their way through what may be two of the most convincing stage brawls ever to smoke up a Houston stage (thanks to fight director Brian Byrnes), the entire audience is sitting at the edges of their aluminum seats.

A lot of what makes this outrageous take on the old love story work is the terrific cast Boone has put together. The House of Capulet is especially rich with fine performers. As Tybalt, Juliet's thuggish cousin who wants nothing more than to whack a Montague or two, Alan Heckner is wonderfully scary. He's so seriously dangerous, it feels good to watch him get what's coming. Thomas Prior and Bree Welch play Juliet's callous parents, Lord and Lady Capulet, with the sort of delicious arrogance that forebodes the darkest of tragedies. Somebody's got to die to teach these two a lesson. And though it takes a moment to adjust to Celeste Roberts's very working-class-New York-sounding Nurse, the character ends up being one of the most likable onstage.


The Houston Shakespeare Festival

Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Dr., 713-533-3276.

Through August 11. Free.

Of course, at the center of the story are Juliet (Jessica Boone) and Romeo (Andrew Love). And they are a lovely, delightfully youthful pair. As played by Boone and Love, their adoration is complicated yet childlike. Both innocent and stubborn, the characters are charming in their willful desire to be together despite their parents' wishes. Boone's pretty Juliet is a teenage girl through and through. She giggles and gets confused and falls madly in love. But she is also terrified of her parents and of the world outside. And Love's Romeo is all young passion — the quality that would be his strength in any other world ends up killing him.

All this adds up to a strange and beautiful logic in Boone's production. The events make sense given the characters' complex emotional lives. Even Friar Lawrence's foolishness is plausible as played by Rutherford Cravens. The good Friar pulls out a flask the first time we meet him, and we understand how he could come up with such an outrageous plan to save the young lovers.

Boone even manages to make the story both very funny and very, very sad, which is hard to do when we all know how the story ends. But this production is so fresh and so powerful that, as one man in the audience put it, one couldn't help longing for things to somehow turn out differently in the end.

Also on the bill is Love's Labor's Lost, a bawdy comedy about a King (Justin Doran) and his three Lords, who determine to spend three years cloistered in monk-like study. They make a pact to give up wine, women and song. Then the Princess of France (Celeste Roberts) arrives with three pretty French ladies in attendance, and the young men's best intentions burn up in their fiery desire. All four men spend a good deal of the play trying to contact their ladies without their buddies finding out.

The comedic farce is one of Shakespeare's least performed works. Full of puns and wordplay, the real star of this work is language itself. Shakespeare has more fun with language in this tale than in any other. Even the obscure word “honorificabilitudinitatibus” is spoken. Happily, the festival offers a rare chance to see the play, which is considered to be one of Shakespeare's most intellectual. And as directed by Sidney Berger, all the puns and wordplay actually make sense — most of the time.

His smart and very funny cast handles the complex language like a well-tuned orchestra. Doran and his partners in lovesickness (Matt Carter, David Wald and especially Philip Lehl) deliver puns with wit and dead-on timing. Eric Doss is very funny as a constable named Dull (his name says it all). Thomas Prior as Costard the Clown and Rutherford Cravens as Don Adriano de Armado round out the silliness. And while this might not be everyman's Shakespeare, the production offers a rare opportunity to see one of his hardest plays at its best.

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