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Patrick Poole as Malvolio with Abraham Ntonya (Fabian), Jake Offen (Toby Belch), and Carlton Warnberg (Andrew Aquecheek) in Twelfth Night.

For a play that opens with the line, “If music be the food of love, play on,” Houston Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Jack Young often felt there was something lacking in the productions he’d seen.

Twelfth Night is the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays,” he says. “It both starts and ends with music. And I’d see productions that didn’t have much music at all.”

That was unacceptable to Young, who’s directing Twelfth Night, playing in repertory with Richard III, at Miller Outdoor Theatre July 29 – August 6. (Incidentally, Young is playing Richard III, too.) And it just so happened that this year, he has a crop of actors who not only have serious chops performing the Bard’s work—they’re musicians as well. Patrick Poole, Twelfth Night’s Malvolio and Richard III’s Hastings, plays trumpet and piano. Mike Lee, Feste in Twelfth Night and doing double duty as Rivers and Lord Mayor in Richard, can sing and play the guitar. Those are just two examples in the cast, and Young says they’ll make a difference for audiences.

“This is a romantic comedy,” he says of Twelfth Night. “You have a lot of knuckleheads running around doing knuckledheaded things, and we’ve been able to incorporate this wonderful element of music into a show that has music built into it from the beginning.”

The pairing of the broadly comedic Twelfth Night with the political passion of Richard III is the kind of thing HSF audiences have come to expect. The company of actors performs in both shows during the festival, meaning they’ve got to be able to play comedy and drama with equal measure. That’s certainly the case, says Young, with HSF, which for decades has served not only as a place where actors can come perform classic works, but also as a training ground for performers who go on to act in Shakespeare plays all over.

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Patrick Poole as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Thus, HSF is a chance for Houstonians to be immersed in great stories told by great performers. Twelfth Night is a romp of mistaken identity, love lost and found, and role reversals. Richard III is all ambition and manipulation, with the future of a country at stake.

Richard III is, at heart, a family brawl,” says Young, “and, come on—everybody loves a family brawl.”

For Young, one of the great things about Shakespeare is that modern audiences can find familiar themes in it. He invites them to compare the intrigue in Richard III to that of House of Cards. If they love the Kevin Spacey hit on Netflix, odds are, they’re going to get serious pleasure from the Shakespeare tale.

“Most people encounter Shakespeare in a high school English class. And these plays were not meant to be read,” he says. “They were meant for people to go see. And they have an epic sweep to them. They feel strangely familiar to us when we see them because Shakespeare is in your blood. So many of the stories we tell today trace back to Shakespeare. It’s our DNA.”

Houston Shakespeare Festival. July 29–August 5 at 8:15 p.m. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Dr. 713-743-3388. More information at houstonfestivalscompany.com.

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