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Image: Julian Basjel

There’s a reason why last year’s Houston Shakespeare Festival drew thousands of people per night for an overall series attendance of 37,000. In the dead-heat of summer.

“These are our stories, the same as George Washington cutting down the cherry tree,” says Jack Young, the festival’s artistic director. “These are the people we are. It’s a way of introducing each generation to the stories we share.”

The 41st annual edition, produced by UH and featuring a cast of regional actors, couples the historical play Henry V, which chronicles the King of England’s 15th-century reign during the Hundred Years’ War, with the lighter offering that Young directed, Much Ado About Nothing, which he calls a “slapstick, Mall Cop kind of comedy.”

Much Ado pairs quick-witted Beatrice against coxcomb Benedick in a love-at-first-sight tug of war. The setting has been accelerated to the end of the 19th century, just after the Cuban War of Independence and the Spanish-American War, when there was “still a good amount of chivalry and the women’s suffrage movement was taking shape,” says Young.

As the head of UH’s professional-actor training program and an associate professor of acting and movement, Young has directed more than 120 plays over his career, but this is the first time he’s tackled Much Ado.

“There’s a rom-com chemistry, but it’s not burdened with a lot of history of the entertainment industry in Hollywood,” says Young, who adds that the comedy features that classic element of, “How do you keep them apart until the very end?”

This is a big year for Shakespeare. It’s the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, and people are going nuts all over the world with parades, live-streamed productions and, in London, a subway map that features stations renamed for Shakespeare plays and characters. Earlier this year, the Houston Shakespeare Festival presented Out Brief Candle: A Celebration of Death Scenes at Brazos Bookstore, an event that featured festival participants and UH students acting out some of Shakespeare’s most dramatic, Earth-leaving scenes.

Young thinks the ever-popular festival is a vital part of the Houston experience. “Laughing with 7,000 people is a real deal,” says Young. “It’s a thing. You don’t get a chance to do that on a regular basis.”

Thru Aug 7. Free. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Dr. 281-373-3386. houstonfestivalscompany.com

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