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CORIOLANUS

By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

Directed by Gregg W. Brevoort

TEXAS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
KILGORE, TX

 

AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Two plays in Kilgore fest make it worth the drive
By Michael Barnes

– “Gregg W. Brevoort’s kept the action briskly cogent”

KILGORE — A few years ago, we crawled out on a critical limb to judge the Texas Shakespeare Festival, based in Kilgore, "indisputably" the best in the state.

Is that still the case? From the evidence of four current productions — "Coriolanus," "The School for Husbands," "Pericles" and "Harvey" — the festival continues to produce respectable, if flawed, theater with more variety and density than any other Bardfest in the state.

Founder and artistic director Raymond Caldwell bravely — perhaps recklessly — greeted the festival's third decade with two lesser Shakespeares, a minor Molière and an old-fashioned American comedy (a children's show, "The Monkey King," joins the repertory soon). Not coincidentally, attendance is down and people are talking, once again, about moving the outfit to a more populous East Texas burg.

Unlike other North American summer arts festivals, this one is not located in a charismatic physical spot, nor does it offer fine dining or shopping alternatives for culture vultures. The Olive Garden in nearby Longview and that small city's dull mall top out the high-end attractions for dining and shopping. The Kilgore area is home to some tasty casual eateries — the Back Porch, El Sombrero, Bodacious Bar-B-Que — and a few small historical museums (the best is the New London Museum about the 1937 natural gas explosion that killed nearly 300 people in a schoolhouse). But Kilgore is an oil-patch town, not a cultural mecca, and visitors debate which Kilgore motel is the least comfortable.

So the theater alone must suffice. Two of the four current shows merit the 10-hour round-trip drive from Austin:

"Coriolanus" — This version of the tragedy about the downfall of a proud Roman general compares favorably to the rendition we caught two weeks ago at the Stratford Festival of Canada, which is saying something, if one considers the larger company enjoys an annual budget 100 times that of the smaller one (more than $50 million vs. less than $500,000). As in Canada, costumer Joel Ebarb avoided a mass toga party, instead making Shakespeare's Roman and Volscian warriors look like particularly butch ballet dancers, while director Gregg W. Brevoort kept the action briskly cogent. In the title role, a tightly wound Mic Matarrese spoke with sharp intelligence, and, when called for, sexual ambiguity, especially interacting with the glitteringly martial Arthur Lazalde as his counterpart Aufidius. Playing Coriolanus' bloodthirsty mother, Ellen Karsten behaved every bit like a noble Roman matron, but failed to move us in her crucial climactic speech. (In a stroke of casual brilliance, David M. Homes, Nathan Kaufman and Thomas Meaney played Volscian servingmen as snippy barbacks.)

"The School for Husbands" — Brisk, bright, brief, this Molière play about how to handle a woman falls between the conventions of late commedia and the elevated moral debates of the 17th-century French writer's most penetrating plays. Once again, the fanciful costumes set the tone — scenery at the festival tends to be utilitarian, but in a classy way — and director Roseann Sheridan balanced pointed word with poised action. The triumvirate at the core of the comedy — a Debra Messing-like Heidi-Marie Ferren, a fool-with-humanity Mark D. Hines and a hilariously girly Andre Marin — hit the notes with delicious precision.

Two plays in the repertory should be avoided, except as curiosities:

"Pericles" — Sometimes this epic romance about the Prince of Tyre dragging his way from sadness to sadness in the Eastern Mediterranean plays as if 12 different writers assembled it during a party game. Costumer Steven F. Graver plied a fabric shop of Orientalist styles and director Stephen Terrell tried hard to establish a coherent story, but he was undermined, especially, by John Knauss as an androgynous Pericles, interpreting him through a sort of existential mist. Scenes were elevated or anchored by Kelsey J. Nash, William Elsman and Scott Shattuck (disclosure: Scott is a friend of long standing).

"Harvey" — Faulty pacing doomed what should have been the popular favorite of the festival, Mary Chase's near-screwball comedy about a man who befriends an invisible, 6-foot-tall rabbit. Oh-so-quiet, pleasant, unflappable David M. Holmes elicited tolerant smiles as Elwood P. Dowd, a role made indelible in the movie version by Jimmy Stewart. But the rest of the cast seemed always a step ahead or behind the laugh lines, making a formula feel-gooder into a stage version of a wet noodle. As usual, comedy is harder than it looks.