Life + Arts Theater

Festival couples Shakespeare classics with a modern twist


Actor Mirron WIllis returns for this year’s festival to play Banquo and Antonio in the two productions. | Courtesy of Houston Shakespeare Festival

For this year’s Houston Shakespeare Festival, Hermann Park’s Miller Outdoor Theater will present “Macbeth” and the “Merchant of Venice” from July 31 to August 9.

“(HSF is) a great series of evenings that’s become a such a strong tradition to Houston,” said Jim Johnson, executive director of HSF, as well as the current director of the UH School of Theater and Dance.

The Houston Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1975, when Dr. Sydney Berger, then-director of the UH School of Music and Dance, noted that the Miller Outdoor Theater had music, opera and ballet performances, but not for theater. He gathered a professional troupe to perform a double feature of Shakespeare plays annually.

The staff, heavy with members of the UH Theater Program, selects a few plays to perform each year. When Johnson read the plays for this year, he felt that the audience would relate to the prideful falls of the protagonists.

“(The main characters) commit themselves in a direction that they think is something they really want. Maybe they were right up to a point, but then they become blind, (violating) the basic right of humanity by pursuing something that’s not in their best interest. It ends up in their downfall. I think that’s really common for people today,” Johnson said.

The performances will feature UH alums like Tracie Thomason alongside TV and film actors like Mirron E. Willis, who was in “Independence Day” with Will Smith in 1996.

For UH Graduate Acting Program Director Jack Young, the festival is a chance to both act and direct, and to experience the history of the famous plays while bringing something new.

“I am somebody who’s interested in passion, precision, and speed,” Young said.

He carries this into his direction of “Macbeth,” a tragedy of regicide and obsession, and the starring role of Shylock, the long-suffering Jewish moneylender, in a more lighthearted “The Merchant in Venice.” He will play Shylock for the second time under Tiger Reel’s direction after his role in the Action!Theater Company’s production in Los Angeles two years ago.

Although these plays are more than four centuries old, Young noted that their relevancy has not expired.

The directing team aims to recreate “Macbeth” as a straightforward Renaissance adaptation–only, this time, with “Game of Thrones broadswords.”

“The Merchant of Venice” will stage as a Bachelorette-esque game show. Young joked that there’s no rose ceremony, but the lighting and music intend to create the suspense of familiar television shows like “Deal or No Deal.”

The festival will start at 8:30 p.m., with “Macbeth” on even days (and July 31) and “The Merchant of Venice” on the others. Four free tickets per person are available on the day of the performance at the Miller Theater.

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