Plays in the park
Outdoor theater in the heart of Houston's summer? It's a worthy (free) hotsacrifice for Shakespeare
Four years ago I moved to Houston just in time for a punishing July. But I forgot all about it when a friend invited me to the Houston Shakespeare Festival.
For a northerner new to Gulf Coast summers, an elegantly spare production of The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s shipwreck plays, was breezy and balmy enough to relieve Houston’s summer heat.
Summer’s special for Shakespeare, be it in London, New York, or, yes, Houston. It’s a time when people have the unique experience of seeing 400-year-old plays that feel as fresh as last week’s news. The outdoor settings lend a touch of authenticity to plays that were most often performed in open air theaters.
The weather in Shakespeare’s London was often a challenge and daylight precious, but great artists make the most of circumstance. Shakespeare used fading light to great effect.
Take A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featured this year at Miller Outdoor Theater, when Duke Theseus bids good night to the finally reconciled lovers: “The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve: / Lovers, to bed; 'tis almost fairy time.”
I’m sure after three hours of invigorating hilarity and captivating language, Shakespeare’s audiences were ready to be tucked in to continue the play’s strange, seductive dreams.
For 36 years, the Houston Shakespeare Festival has given the gift of this sort of magic. Founded in 1975 by Sidney Berger, former Director of the School of Theatre at the University of Houston, the festival has since its inception enchanted hundreds of thousands of viewers. This season features two very popular comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Friday, Sunday, Tuesday and August 5, 7) and Much Ado About Nothing (Saturday night and August 4, 6, 8), all at 8:30 p.m.
With the festival free and open to the public, it’s a better deal than in Shakespeare’s day when most spectators paid a good handful of pennies to stand for the performance, which is why they were called “groundlings.” A seat was significantly more. It’s the same idea now at the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe in London, where a ticket to stand costs £5 (roughly $8) and a seat might cost £35 (roughly $52).
It’s easy to think of Shakespeare as remote and grand, “high culture” as stiff as a stiff Elizabethan collar. I’ve taught Shakespeare for a dozen or so years to university students young and old.
In a way, it’s a big scam: Shakespeare teaches himself, really. My job is to help readers relax and trust their own instincts about what is as funny, strange, crude, or weighty in these plays. So here are some words about what you might watch for if you find yourself a groundling in Hermann Park.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has everything you could want in a comedy: Quarreling lovers who fall in and out of love (or asleep) at the drop of a hat, girl on girl catfighting to rival The Real Housewives of any city, supernatural forces meddling in human affairs, oafish workmen turned unintentionally hilarious would-be thespians and a man briefly transformed into the donkey-headed lover of the queen of fairies.
Often the absurdity of love's at the heart of a comedy, and not even marriage makes the absurdity go away even. So you may not want to take Midsummer as a how-to-guide to dating.
Here’s young Helena’s way of wooing an indifferent former boyfriend: “I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius, / The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.” But you will finds some great fighting words. Former friends Helena and Hermia start fighting about their heights and hair colors.
Try this out, sometime, on an ex-BFF: “How low am I, thou painted maypole? / I am not yet so low / But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes!”
But the play is really a love song to the powers of imagination. Even Theseus, the dull, authoritarian Duke knows this: “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends.” This is why nighttime, the time of dreams, is so important.
Much Ado About Nothing, on the other hand, might be the most aptly named play Shakespeare ever wrote. Very little actually happens in the play as pairs of lovers fall in and out of love and back again. So often, the experience of being in love is the experience of those long, awkward pauses when you feel so smitten you don’t know what to say or do.
I was informed some weeks ago, by Facebook no less, that my 14 year-old nephew is “in a relationship.” On a visit to my hometown, I couldn’t help overhear the long non-conversations, the conversations about having a conversation and the conversations about not having conversation. It was practically Shakespearean.
But don’t worry: no awkward pauses await viewers of Much Ado About Nothing.You’ll enjoy instead sharp and witty dialogue reminiscent of, if crueler than, those fabulous fast-talking Hollywood talkies.
The Rosalind Russell of His Girl Friday would have rung true as the knife-tongued Beatrice fending off the advances of Benedick, who she secretly loves. The play really appears to be about the purportedly unfaithful Hero and her sad and enraged fiancé Claudio. Beatrice and Benedick try to fix a relationship broken only in these befuddled lovers’ minds. They spend the rest of their time verbally sparing, like elementary school children who hit each other to say “I like you.”
Shakespeare was a great genius of jibes, curses, reproaches, and insults. Benedick should have known better than to speak idly of love to a woman like Beatrice: “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”
How hard it is to have a crush on someone who can skewer you with words.
Sure, seeing theater outdoors can be distracting. But don’t think for a moment that Shakespeare’s audiences didn’t take breaks, gossip with neighbors, or eat, drink, and make merry even in the midst of the most solemn of tragedies.
Clowns entertained the crowds between acts, and a festival atmosphere pervaded the theater. So you can feel comfortable packing up your family and friends, some refreshments, and some blankets, cushions, or chairs to settle into a good spot on the lawn in beautiful Hermann Park.
If you plan ahead, you can wait in line for a ticket in the seated area closest to the stage. Myself, I prefer theater au naturel on the grass. Whatever your preference, get to Miller Outdoor Theater. Shakespeare will takes care of the rest.