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DIFFICULT COMEDY

Kings County Shakespeare Company’s Houston helms "Twelfth Night" in Fort Greene

The Brooklyn Paper


Shakespeare in Brooklyn? Yes, the borough has a long history devoted to the Bard and is home to one of the longest-running Shakespeare theater companies in America.

It comes as no surprise to theater-loving Brooklynites, who are accustomed to visually stunning productions of "The Tempest," "Taming of the Shrew," "Hamlet," "Macbeth" and other classic theater presented by Kings County Shakespeare Company - and its artistic director and co-founder Deborah Wright Houston - over the past 23 years.

"I think it’s important for people to see what they hear. We’re an eye-oriented generation with the computer and the TV," Houston said. "You’ve got to capture the eye, or the ear might not follow. You have to tell the story in pictures. I try to be very visual and be true to the text. It is very difficult. I want to grab the audience’s feelings, not just their intellect."

Now the company is taking on the challenge of the Bard’s romantic comedy "Twelfth Night" at BRIC Studio in Fort Greene, June 14-30.

"I love the magic of the verse in this play, and I love it because it is so musical," she said. "I’ve played roles in it before, but I’ve never directed it."

"Twelfth Night" is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved romantic comedies. It’s a play filled with multiple plots, mistaken identity, mismatched lovers and both unrequited and requited love.

The main plot hinges on the resemblance between Sebastian and his twin sister Viola, who are separated from each other in a shipwreck off the coast of Illyria. Believing her brother to be dead, Viola dresses as a boy, finding employment as Cesario, a page to Orsino, Duke of Illyria.

"The comedy and clowning is difficult. It’s far more difficult than tragedy," she said. "It requires physical business and it’s got to be sharp. I don’t want shtick. You want Shakespeare’s comedy to be affecting, poignant and beautiful."

Houston will focus attention on the uproarious machinations of endearing clownish characters such as Sir Toby Belch and Olivia’s steward, Malvolio. The latter’s moral self-righteousness underscores Shakespeare’s indictment of the Puritans.

Houston sees a parallel between Sir Toby and Malvolio and today’s schism of the moral left and right, respectively, in American politics.

"I have extremes there represented by Sir Toby and Malvolio and they are at loggerheads throughout the play," she said. "The interesting thing is that neither of them is totally good or totally bad. They’re both sympathetic and rotten at times. That’s what I love about Shakespeare. He really just shows you life. Circumstances are out there and crazy, but the people are real and so much fun."

Houston’s directorial approach to "Twelfth Night" differs from KCSC’s previous productions of the romantic comedy. She played the role of Viola in Steve Zimmer’s exotic, Turkish-flavored production in the ’80s. Zimmer downplayed Malvolio’s ties to the Puritans and transformed him into a purist Muslim. Houston also performed the male role of the foolish clown Feste in director K.G. Wilson’s 1995 gender-bender production, set at the end of WWI with women cast in many of the male roles at the bandshell in Prospect Park.

"I’m primarily concerned with real people," Houston said. "I want the audience to know what’s going down with these people. I want you to know what they feel."

Houston’s production will also include original music written, sung and performed by herself, violinist Bruno Pena and recorder player Joe Crowe Ryan.

Her cast is multi-ethnic and features many Equity actors.

Houston first fell in love with Shakespeare while studying opera in the late ’60s and early ’70s at the Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Conn. Elmer Nagy, then opera department chair at Hartt, encouraged his singers to learn Shakespeare to develop their acting skills.

"I had a fair amount of acting ability, which surprised him because he had difficulty finding singers who could act," she said. "I ended up being his guinea pig. He would do improv with me and all other kinds of things to illustrate different acting points.

"I fell in love with Shakespeare. I fell in love with the language and with the idea that I could act," said Houston. "I just found there was something really gutsy about doing classical theater."

 

Kings County Shakespeare Company presents "Twelfth Night" at BRIC Studio [647 Fulton St., 2nd floor; entrance at 57 Rockwell Pl. in Fort Greene] June 14-17, June 20-22, June 26-30 at 8 pm; and June 18 and June 25 at 2 pm and 7 pm. Tickets are $18, $9 student/seniors. For tickets, call (212) 868-4444 or visit the Web site www.smarttix.com. For more information, visit www.kingscountyshakespeare.org.

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