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Volume 70, Issue 161, Thursday, August 4, 2005

Life & Arts

Berger brings Shakespeare to the park

Theatre director says the festival was a necessary addition to local art community

By Melissa Barrera
The Daily Cougar

Artists are nothing without their art. A painter has to paint, a singer has to sing and according to Sydney Berger, director of the UH School of Theatre, a director has to direct.

Upon arriving in Houston, Berger was surprised to find that the city was home to the amazing Miller Outdoor Theater, which provided locals with a place to experience all of the town's most prominent artistic institutions for free. But in this admiration he realized the theater was missing one thing: Shakespeare.

UH alumna Jennifer Cherry (second from left) returns to Houston to play Rosalind, a banished woman pretending to be a man, caught up in a love quadrangle with Orlando (Daniel Magill), Phebe (Bree Welch), and Silvius (Brandon Clarke).

Photo courtesy of UH School of Theatre

"I wanted to direct Shakespeare more than I wanted to breathe," Berger said. "I thought the most natural thing to add to that wonderful series of artistic events was Shakespeare, because it was as big as the symphony. It was as big as the ballet."

With that in mind, Berger founded the Houston Shakespeare Festival, now in its 31st season, to add spoken word to the mix of free events hosted by the Miller Outdoor Theater. This season, which began July 29, offers up Hamlet, directed by Carolyn Boone, associate professor at the School of Theatre, and As You Like It, directed by Berger.

Though Berger has had decades to tackle various Shakespearian classics, each season brings a new experience, even if he finds himself directing a play that he has undertaken in the past.

"Every time I go to (a play) like As You Like It, which I've done before, I have no recollection of it," Berger said. "The reason is, I'm different than the way I was when I first directed that play years ago. When I embrace the play this time I'm finding things that I never knew were there the first time."

As You Like It certainly does take on a new angle this time around, with an incredibly gifted acting company delivering a deep, multi-faceted rendition of the classic comedy. 

During the opening performance of the play last weekend, thousands of diverse people gathered for a show filled with unexpected turns. While many had anticipated a few good laughs, the dreary set and the round, emotionally charged actors also delivered a complicated and expressive performance.

"Comedies are very interesting to me," Berger said. "I love doing them (because) they are so filled with darkness as well as comedy... just like our lives."

Though the premise of As You Like It isn't hard to get your head around -- boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, girl is banished and must live in exile as a boy -- it's the incredible direction of Berger that draws out the various aspects of the play that Shakespeare initially entangled together. And it is only when a team such as Berger and his actors get together that audiences get to feed off such a satisfying play.

Berger believes that an important factor of the genius of Shakespeare was his ability to write on various levels in order to enable everyday people to experience his plays in different ways.

"(Shakespeare) put in jokes, he put in burlesques, he put in everything that would please an audience," Berger said. "If the butcher and the baker didn't understand what was going on, on stage, then he wouldn't have made a living."

But as simple as it is to say that the gifted playwright was able to capture an audience, the words alone do not move the average man. Berger says it takes a gifted actor to bring the master's words alive on a stage, and becoming that actor is indeed a labor of love.

"If you're a mountain climber, what mountain do you want to climb? Well everybody wants to climb Everest, because it has the highest peak," Berger said. "Well Shakespeare is the highest peak in the theater, so people very much want to play him."

Several UH alumni are helping to bring Shakespeare's words alive this season, with Jennifer Cherry and Daniel Magill playing the lead duet of destined lovers. Both actors shined in Saturday's performance, even when a slight prop malfunction forced Cherry to masterfully ad lib her way through a scene, all the while staying in character.

As You Like It and Hamlet will run through Aug. 13. For show information or to obtain free tickets to Miller Outdoor Theater's seated area, call (713) 284-8352 or visit

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