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Austin's Remarkable Long Summer of Shakespeare Hot

Michael Meigs
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Written by Michael Meigs     May 29, 2011    
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Austin's Remarkable Long Summer of Shakespeare

Photos: Kimberley Mead, Michael Meigs, Jeff Lefkovitz, Laura Tresize, Wondrous Strange Players

The population of the county surrounding Austin, Texas, is less than a million, but I'd wager that this capital city, also the sunny, easy-going counter-cultural capital of Texas, has more Shakespeare onstage per capita than anywhere else in the United States.

I count twenty-one Shakespeare stagings scheduled from April through September of this year. Or 21½, if you're willing to include the four-player 20-minute World's Fastest Hamlet fielded by Austin Shakespeare in parks and schools.

As of today Austin has two fine Shakespearean comedies winding up lengthy runs at outdoor locations. Elsewhere, Lear and The Tempest Project are at mid-run, each with a woman playing the central character.

We have a steam-punk Tempest and a beach-blanket-bingo Love's Labor's Lost. Three productions of Twelfth Night are scheduled, one ending tonight at the Curtain Theatre, a lakeside reduced version of the Globe, property of video-gamester/astronaut-for-a-fee Richard Garriott.

Just before its April schism, the Austin Drama Club did another presentation of its Warner-Brothers-gangster-style Richard III. The annual University of Texas Shakespeare-in-Winedale summer boot camp at a country barn expands from three plays to four this year, plus a staged reading to piece out one full-day experience of all three parts of Henry VI. In September we'll have a female Hamlet.

But patience, prithee, some order here. Let's look at current offerings first, then tidy up the edges of the extended Shakespearean season in Austin:

Love's Labor's Lost, directed by actor-director-journalist-reviewer Robert Faires, finishes its four-weekend run at Austin's Zilker Park. Faires was concerned that some of the performances might get rained out, but in the current drought, only one performance has been shut down, because of a power failure. Audiences were sparse at first but hit the 600 mark for the final weekend. Most brought a blanket and a picnic.

Twelfth Night, the one with cross-gartered Malvolio and the woman disguised as a boy and in love with her master, was gracefully staged by the Baron's men at Garriott's outdoor Curtain Theatre, located next to his teeny fantasy town of Castleton. It featured Elizabethan period costumes, the quasi-Globe theatre setting and interval music with a touch more Irish folk than Renaissance. Favorites: Bridget Farias as the elegant Olivia, Casey Weed as a fussy Duke Orsino, and Brian Martin, who took seriously the "belch" in Sir Toby Belch.

Lear is running until mid-June at the Vortex Repertory in east Austin, not too far from the University of Texas. The Vortex is known for fantasy, music and spectacle, and this re-imagining by core Vortex participant Rudy Ramirez, built around the august Jennifer Underwood, features a cast of prize-winners and spell-binders. The production is vigorous, but director Rudy Ramirez's choices diminish Shakespeare's great epic of royal folly and delusion. Lear's rage against the storm is converted into a confused confrontation with paparazzi. Key narration is projected as sound-bites from MSNBC-style talking heads, proving that style can defeat substance. Underwood as the female head of a Lear Corporation is initially more querulous than royal. She doesn't really get going until the mad scene in Act IV, scene 6. Cross-gender casting for the roles of Kent and Edda (Edgar) is puzzling; less so for Shannon Grounds as the Fool. The last third or so of the production — from the blinding of Gloucester onward — has impact and conviction.

The Tempest Project is running in Round Rock, just north of Austin. The Sam Bass Community Theatre entertains its devotees in the converted Union Pacific railroad depot relocated to a park just off Interstate Highway 35 and Route 620. The 30-year-old Sam Bass is the "Little Engine That Could" of community theatres. A core company of unpaid associates and friends puts together a six-play season that includes one real "stretch." Last year it was Waiting for Godot; this year big, quizzical Frank Benge has put The Tempest into steam-punk fiction and has cast Susan Poe Dickson as "Prospera." Major attractions: regulars Gene Storie and Lynn Beaver as the rascals Stephano the drunken butler and "Trincula" the jester, and Alicia "Cici" Barone as Ariel, Prospera's familiar spirit. This fantasy plays Thursdays - Sundays until June 11.

The Recent Shakespearean Past in Austin

Looking backward a bit:
This monumental season began when the newly constituted Present Company put together an outdoor edition of Much Ado About Nothing at Rain Lily Farm in near east Austin in late March and early April. Their delight in the intrigues around Benedict and Beatrice was evident, and reviewer Barry Pineo for the weekly Austin Chronicle praised the venue and the staging. I attended and appreciated the company but found Shakespeare's language rushed. The Chronicle review helped draw large crowds later in the run.

Austin's City Theatre puts one Shakespearean work each year into its ten-play season, and in April Artistic Director Andy Berkovsky and stage director Jeff Hinkle presented This Spring of Love, an adaption of Two Gentlemen of Verona. They intercalated 20th century musical numbers in the Shakespearean action and language. In this story two friends, Proteus (Matthew Burnett) and Valentine (Patrick Kaufman) go off to the royal court and fall hard for Silvia. Proteus's girlfriend follows him in disguise and is appalled to find that she has been forgotten. Two Gentlemen has an abrupt and unfunny denouement when Proteus tries to rape Silvia, repents, sort of, and nobody does much about it. For a 21st century sensibility this is a plot problem that must be resolved or at least dealt with; the City's directors avoided it. They broke up the rape by having Silvia (Eve Alonso) rise magically from Proteus' furious embrace to sing "I'm Not That Girl," then return to the position quo ante. The clowning was entertaining, especially that of R. Michael Clinkscales as the narrator/general factotum crafted by Berkovsky in an effort to hold the piece together. Robert Stevens was a wry Launce, escorting the redoubtable bulldog Opie of Bullrun as Launce's dog Crab. Some of the funnies were a bit frantic — Kirk Kelso's cross-dressing Antonio, for example, and the "Three Stooges" staging of the pirate band (Cllinkscales, Kelso and Stevens). Watching This Spring of Love was like channel surfing across Masterpiece Theatre, MTV and the Cartoon Network.

Philip Kreyche, a serious and brainy young actor who has written and performed impressive pieces for the Hyde Park Theatre's FronteraFest, for Austin Community College and for the Wit's End Theatre Company, took on Macbeth April 20-24. The production had been scheduled for the Genesis Playhouse, a studio theatre that closed over a dispute with the landlord about flood damage. Kreyche had to move it up for a four-day run at the Vortex. It's hard to do Macbeth without the witches, but Kreyche attempted to channel them through Macbeth, posing an interesting question of interpretation for David Young as Banquo, at his side. Young, with his lean and hungry look, has played a number of bad guys with the Gaslight Baker Theatre in Lockhart, 25 miles south of Austin, and also with Austin's Different Stages. He knew how to make Banquo's ghost menacing. Kreyche situated the action in 1967 Scotland, a decision providing some rich dialect challenge but otherwise unjustified by the staging or the action (King Duncan evidently came from an alternate reality of Scotland). Kreyche's portrayal of Macbeth was contaminated somewhat in my mind by his recent portrayal of the poet-crybaby Octavius ("Tavy") for Austin Shakespeare's Man and Superman. He came across as generally confused and intimidated, and not until his tongue-lashing of the unfortunate messenger in Act V did he appear to take on a life of his own. Christina Leidel was an acceptable Lady Macbeth, given to thumping the thane on the chest. Most interesting was the juxtaposition of Kreyche, Young and Japhy Fernandes as a hectic, baleful Malcolm. Fernandes was a principal at the now apparently defunct Austin Drama Club, where he drove the company through an intense cycle of dark and often clever low-budget re-interpretations of the canon.

The Wondrous Strange Players are the faction that broke in March from that Shakespeare-obsessed Austin Drama Club. These players had developed Julio Mella's Warner Brothers film noir version of Richard III with Fernandes in 2008 and presented it again in 2009. They revived Richard III in March at a makeshift theatre in one wing of a community market lodged in a former supermarket in central south Austin and extended it for two weeks in April. The Wondrous Strange Players are currently doing Oscar Wilde's Salomé and promising to do original work by company member Steven Brandt. They haven't announced their further intentions vis-a-vis Shakespeare.

Coming Up: Shakespeare Schools and Camps

Looking forward, theatre groups and educators have promoted several Shakespeare camps and schools during the summer holidays:

Austin Shakespeare's "Young Shakespeare" summer troupe will present a full production of Troilus and Cressida at the Curtain Theatre, from June 23 to July 3. This is the third summer that Austin's most consistent Shakespearians are working with young persons, rehearsing for a month and then performing for two weekends at the outdoor mini-replica of the Globe.

Shakespeare on the Hill, a collaboration of St. Edward's University in Austin and Austin Shakespeare, runs a one-week camp for 12 to 17-year-olds, who will stage an abridged version of Love's Labor's Lost on June 17.

The Sam Bass Community Theatre in Round Rock is running a Youth Guild camp that will produce Macbeth, the Musical Comedy and Shakespeare Unshackled, Thursdays to Sundays from July 22 to August 13.

The EmilyAnn Theatre in Wimberley, southwest of Austin, does an annual "Shakespeare Under The Stars" theatre training program for young persons. This year they'll present Twelfth Night from July 25 to August 6 in their outdoor amphitheater, every night of the week except Sunday.

Shakespeare Scheduled for Austin

The annual "Shakespeare at Winedale" program of the University of Texas at Austin takes place in the countryside near Round Top, Texas, about two hours east of Austin. This Shakespeare boot camp is entering its 41st year. University students spend more than two months at the farm, preparing and presenting a challenging offering of Shakespeare plays in rotating repertory. From July 14 to August 7 the students at Winedale will present Hamlet, Henry VI parts 1 and 2, and As You Like It. On its last day at Winedale the troupe will present all three parts of Henry VI, at 10:30, 2 p.m. and a staged reading of part 3 at 7:30 p.m. They will travel subsequently to perform in Dallas and at the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia.

The Weird Sisters Theatrical Collective, a feminist sisterhood loosely grouped around the University of Texas's program of graduate studies in theatre practice and performance, will present their take on A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Center Stage on Real St. in the second half of August. They're serious about their ideology and their annual summer theatre project, but they have a cheerful sense of humor, and they like to do Shakespeare or Shakespeare spin-offs. Last year they performed founding member Susan Gayle Todd's Sycorax, offering a back-story for the unseen witch-mother of Caliban, the monster of the Tempest.

The 18-month-old Chaotic Theatre Company will stage Twelfth Night at the Rude Mechanicals' Off Center Theatre in east Austin September 8 to 24. The Chaotics enjoy the dark side; they started with an Alice (in Wonderland) set in an insane asylum and this year they did a night of one-act horror plays by David Skeele. But they have done classics, as well — A Midsummer Night's Dream and Lysistrata. This show will be worth a look.

The EmilyAnn Theatre in Wimberley will do a "grown-up" staging of The Tempest, evenings in its amphitheater from September 9 to October 1. The theatre has been successful in attracting experienced actors from throughout the Austin area for its annual post-Labor-Day Shakespeare presentation. Several leads and character actors currently appearing with Austin Shakespeare and with the Baron's men have performed in Wimberley.

Austin Shakespeare will present Hamlet in the "black box" of the Rollins Theatre at downtown Austin's Long Center for the Arts, September 22 - October 9. Helen Merino will take the title role. Merino received the Austin arts community's Austin's B. Iden Payne award for outstanding lead actress in a drama for her 2010 performance for Austin Shakespeare in the title role in Mary Stuart by Schiller.

The Baron's Men again take to the Globe-miniature Curtain Theatre on September 30 for a four-weekend run of Henry V, Friday and Saturday evenings, winding up October 22. Those in climes further north can envy us our outdoor theatre late in the fall, but the truth is that we'll probably bring along our hoodies and sweatshirts for later in the evening.

Sometime in October the newly established Last Act Theatre Company will perform Titus Andronicus. Dates and times have not been announced.

Oh, and looking further forward, here's another example of Austin's creativity with the Bard — you'll just have to be wait for it, but Austin Shakespeare is going to be doing a Bollywood version of Twelfth Night in next year's Zilker Park free Shakespeare, in May, 2012.

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