All right, Jack Young, UH drama professor. Tell us why we should put ourselves through bug bites and large crowds and thick-as-hell humidity, just for men in tights conversing in a strange language at the Shakespeare Festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre.
“Because you know these characters,” he answers. Well, okay, but—“You know that wife or that youth, and it’s raw, right up in front of you.” Right, but can’t it be right in front of us in, like, October? “It’s become a tradition here in Houston.” Okay, you’ve got us there. The UH-produced two-play festival has been popular since its debut in 1975.
It’s not like we aren’t intrigued by this year’s darkish bill, which features not a comedy and tragedy, but two dramas, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice. (All right, settle down. We know that, technically speaking, the latter is a comedy. But any play where a guy’s willing to hack off a pound of flesh like it’s lamb for a shawarma qualifies as drama in our book.)
“I think that’s the beauty of Shakespeare’s writing,” says Young, who performs both the all-important role of Shylock in Venice and directs Macbeth. “Comedies still have tragedy in them, having dark and very human elements.”
Macbeth, of course, tells the eponymous story of a general who, consumed by ambition, kills a king and ascends to the throne, only to descend into a state of madness. Venice, meanwhile, chronicles a dispute between a young man and the lender to whom he owes money.
“Shakespeare creates conflicts and highlights this dichotomy we all have,” says Jim Johnson, also a UH drama professor and the festival’s executive director. “His characters know what they’re doing is wrong, but damn it, they’re going to follow through.”
As for the productions, Macbeth employs period costumes and sets, while Venice, set in modern times, comes complete with power suits and reality TV. “People want to see swords and a traditional play, but there’s also room to roam,” Young says. “I think people connect with his work so much because of the blending of poetry and imagination, which together can take audiences anywhere.”
Rage, greed, life, death, jealousy, war—admit it, they’re as much a part of life today as in 17th-century England. And when Macbeth speaks of his “heat-oppressed brain”—well, it’s not like you won’t know exactly what he’s talking about.
Houston Shakespeare Festival
Macbeth: Aug 2, 4, 6 & 8 at 8:30
The Merchant of Venice: Aug 1, 5, 7 & 9 at 8:30
Free tickets for covered seating available at box office on performance days between 10:30 & 1. Open seating on the hill. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Dr. 281-373-3386. milleroutdoortheatre.com