This year's Houston Shakespeare Festival kicks off on Friday and its offerings of Antony and Cleopatra and As You Like It give a Booker T. Washington graduate, Brandon Dirden, his first chance to return to Houston in two years. A winner of an OBIE award last year for his star turn as Boy Willie in a New York City revival of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, Dirden will play Julius Caesar and then Duke Frederick/Corin on alternate nights. Dirden's wife, Crystal Dickinson, will also do the tragedy-to-comedy switch, playing Cleopatra and then Celia in the annual festival produced by the University of Houston.
Although Dirden is a veteran of the Georgia Shakespeare Festival and the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, he hadn't performed Caesar in this play before, and the rehearsals alone changed his mind about the historic figure. "I thought he was just a master manipulator and hungry for power. These last couple days, I've learned there was so much more to him. That maybe he isn't as maniacal as I thought he was. He is a man who is very passionate about his immediate family and the people he considers his family. And he is a man who has been wounded. He loves his sister dearly; he loves Mark Antony dearly. When Mark Antony's behavior is proven to be less than honorable, that really hurts."
While he describes As You Like It as "just delightful, all about love and hope," it's clear Dirden also wants Houston audiences to embrace Shakespeare's historic tragedy. "I think the opportunity doesn't come along very often to see Antony and Cleopatra. It's a big, huge, epic play."
See Antony and Cleopatra at 8:30 p.m. on August 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 and As You Like It at 8:30 p.m. on August 3, 7, 9 and 11. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. For information, visit the theater's website. Free.
Houston is rapidly becoming a geek paradise thanks to the parade of consistently improving pop-culture conventions, among them this weekend's Space City Con, our second pick for Friday. "We're just trying to make sure that our hometown, a larger city, a broad geographical city, has the 'galactic' reach of con events," said founder George Comits. "[That] people know they can come here to Con to make a party of our geek festival."
This year's guest list is impressive. Sylvester McCoy, the seventh Doctor Who and recently Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit films, will be making an appearance (we're sure fans are set to pump him for stories from DW's 50 years or on what we can expect from the rest of Peter Jackson's newest trilogy). Jewel Staite of Firefly, Goth superstar author Gabrielle Faust and more Star Trek cast members than you can swing a Bat'leth at will also be on hand. SCC is big on attracting organized fan groups as well as stars. Global level officers of the 501st Storm Trooper Legion are also expected to be in attendance this year.
Space City Con runs noon to 7 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Houston Marriott Westchase, 2900 Briarpark Drive. For information, visit the event's website. $20 to $45.
Robert Anderson's poignant drama Tea and Sympathy, one of our choices for Saturday, might have premiered on Broadway in 1953, but David Rainey, director of the current Back Porch production, says the issues it discusses are as fresh and relevant as ever. "It's the story of [Tom,] a young boy who's going through an awkward time in his life," Rainey says. "He doesn't fit in; he never has. And he's being persecuted because some people suspect him of being a homosexual. It's set in the 1950s, but it's really pertinent now. There are strong parallels between that time and now." Jacob Perkel appears as Tom, with Joanne Hubbard as Laura, the headmaster's wife and Tom's strongest ally, much to the headmaster's disgust.
One of the qualities that drew Rainey to the play was its lack of hard, fast answers for the audience. "There's a lot of ambiguity. As far as whether Tom is or isn't gay, I think people will draw their own conclusions, but they might draw different conclusions based on what they see. And there are some questions about other characters in the play, about whether or not they might be gay and are hiding it or maybe haven't even recognized it yet."
Asked if he was tempted to update the 1950s setting to contemporary times, Rainey says no. "I tend not to play with [the story] too much. Some directors are very good at doing that, but I tend to look at what the playwright wrote and stick to that. In this particular play, it would be difficult to re-conceptualize it or modernize it. What we can do is to tell a clear story in such a way that a modern audience can get it."
7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through August 18. Main Street Theater -- Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit the theater's website. $30.
Good news, bad news. Bad news first: Percussionist Shelia E won't be among the headliners at the 23rd Annual Houston International Jazz Festival as originally planned on Saturday. (Grumble, grumble, whine, whine.) And now the good news: Guitarist Jonathan Butler and saxophonist Elan Trotman (performing together as the Soul of Summer) as well as the Texas Brass Band, Los Skarnales and the Summer Jazz Workshop All-Stars are all still on the schedule and plan to deliver a stellar show.
The festival is the annual fund-raising event for Jazz Education Inc., drummer Bubbha Thomas's brainchild. Wildly successful, the program includes a summer jazz workshop with professional musicians teaching and mentoring students in the art of jazz. After working all summer, the kids get to play with the headliners...and this is no surprise...they steal the show every year. "As many festival attendees have said in the past," Thomas tells us, "if you close your eyes and listen to these young people, you wouldn't know they were children." Children with serious chops, that is.
A little bit of Jazz Fest trivia for you: Houston jazz legend Conrad Johnson's great-grandson, Tyler Johnson, will be among the students performing at the festival. Johnson won't be the only one onstage with a musical pedigree: Lawrence Turner, Kyle Turner's son, and Raven Moran, Jason Moran's niece, will also be onstage, along with several other second-generation Summer Jazz Workshop participants.
There's a kickoff party at 10 p.m. on Friday at 5115 Bar & Lounge. $15. The concert is at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Bayou Music Center, 520 Texas. $28 to $58. For information, call 713‑839-7000 or visit the festival's website.
Poet Outspoken Bean is among the featured performers at this year's Word Around Town (W.A.T.) Poetry Tour 2013, our only choice for Sunday. As an invited featured artist, Bean was able to bypass the tour's rigorous draft process. "There were more than 150 poets at the draft this year," Bean tells us. "It was ridiculous; it was a fire hazard." Nine poets were eventually selected to participate in the daily readings. "I was really glad that I wasn't in the draft and that my spot as a featured poet was secure," Bean laughs. "It was crazy competition." Bean's set to read several new works, including poems dedicated to his students and to shooting victim Trayvon Martin, as well as past audience favorites and group poems with the VIP Slam Team.
While all the participating poets are performance poets, there are some differences in style and subject matter. "The difference is in the individual," Bean says. "No two poets perform exactly alike, and while there may be some onstage similarities among performers, those are superficial. Experienced poets don't sound like anyone else but themselves. There are some people who are very energetic -- I'm in that group -- others are more reserved, some are funny, others more hard-hitting."
The tour starts at 8 p.m. on Sunday at Bohemeo's, 708 Telephone Road. Performances continue at various locations through August 10. For information, call 832-894-1558 or visit the event's website. Free.
Margaret Downing and Jef with One F contributed to this post.
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