When you hear the words “Shakespearean Comedy,” which of the Bard’s plays most quickly pop to mind? A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Twelfth Night? The Taming Of The Shrew? Much Ado About Nothing? As You Like It? All of the above?
Probably not The Merchant Of Venice, a tragic comedy which presents numerous challenges to actors, directors, and audiences alike. Few of its scenes are truly comedic, it is nowhere near as romantic as any of the aforementioned titles, and considerable criticism has been made of what many consider its anti-Semitic treatment of the moneylender Shylock.
For all these reasons, the talented young Shakespeareans who call themselves The Porters Of Hellsgate have undertaken one of their biggest challenges to date in staging this “problem play” as part of their fifth season.
Not unexpectedly, it is a challenge they have met with mostly flying colors. The Porters are after all (to quote from a previous StageSceneLA review) “a force to be reckoned with in Los Angeles classical theater,” actors with “the ability to make Shakespeare come alive with a skill and grace which belies the youth of the company.”
Inspired by TV’s Mad Men, director Thomas Bigley has set this Merchant Of Venice in 1961, an era whose casual racism lends itself especially well to this particular Shakespearean tale.
An opening scene at the VSE (Venice Stock Exchange) sets up the financial difficulties which prompt Antonio (Alex Parker) to borrow from Jewish moneylender Shylock (Gus Krieger) so that his best friend Bassanio (Brian Weiss) will have sufficient funds to woo and win the love of the rich and beautiful Portia (Liza de Weerd). Shylock, who resents Antonio’s habit of loaning money at zero interest, agrees to lend Antonio three thousand ducats on condition that, should the loan not be repaid within three months’ time, the young businessman pay him back with a pound of his “fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me.” Can you say Ouch!?
Meanwhile, the fair Portia is doing some husband-hunting of her own, insisting (per her father’s will) that any suitor desirous of her hand in marriage choose from one of three “caskets.” If the would-be lover picks the right box, he gets Portia; if he loses, he must leave Belmont and never again propose marriage—to anyone. A pair of Princes (Daniel Armas and Doug Milliron) and Bassanio arrive one by one to make their choice of casket. You can probably guess who picks right.
Several subplots add to the play’s typically convoluted Shakespearean storyline, most particularly ones involving Portia’s maid Nerissa (Kelly Cretti), who is courted by Antonio’s and Bassanio’s friend Gratiano (Barry Finnegan); Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Elisa Richter), who is wooed by Lorenzo (Dan Sykes), another of the duo’s friends; and Launcelot Gobbo (Sean Faye), who fulfills the requisite role of Fool alongside his father Old Gobbo (Bert Emmett). Merchants Salerio and Solanio have been turned by the Porters into female characaters played by Cynthia Beckert and Kate O’Toole. The cast is completed by David Ghilardi as the Duke Of Venice, Melissa Harkness as Portia’s servant and Sterling Hall as Leonardo and Stefano.
Bigley, whose inspired helming of the Porters’ 2010 production of Hamlet won him a Scenie for Outstanding Direction Of A Drama, does equally fine work here, once again using a blackbox stage to imaginative effect. The early ‘60s setting not only makes excellent dramatic sense but also allows costume designer Jessica Pasternak to again work gorgeous fashion wonders on a shoestring budget. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the young director has made some inspired casting choices, beginning with his leading lady.
Scenie winner de Weerd is simply breathtaking as Portia, whether in feminine mode or in male drag as lawyer “Balthazar,” whose “The quality of mercy is not strained” speech de Weerd delivers with utmost grace and an unfaltering ease with Shakespearean verse. Watching de Weerd, I couldn’t help thinking, “This is what audiences must have felt seeing a young Meryl Streep do Shakespeare In The Park.” Larger theaters like A Noise Within and The Colony would do well take note of this gifted young actress.
Previous StageSceneLA reviews have praised Gus Krieger’s comedic chops, and he is now equally memorable in his powerful dramatic turn as Shylock. Krieger digs deep to give us a man whose physical infirmities mirror the emotional scars suffered from an anti-Semitism confronted on a daily basis, thereby making Shylock’s deceitfulness and greed more a matter of self-defense than the inbred character flaws others may have portrayed them as in the past.
Though there is some unevenness in performances, a number of excellent ones stand out. Weiss and Parker not only make for a terrific pair of leading men, but are completely at ease with 16th Century language, Parker scoring particularly strongly in the intense “Pound Of Flesh” courtroom scene. Cretti has a number of charming moments as Nerissa, an excellent Beckert makes for a glamorous, sophisticated Salerio opposite O’Toole’s first-rate Solanio, and Ghilardi is an appropriately stalwart Duke. Faye’s scene as Launcelot opposite his near blind father (a very funny Emmett) provides entertaining comic relief as do scenes involving Harkness’s delightfully mugging maid, Milliron’s deliciously full-of-himself Prince Of Morocco, and Armas’s hilariously accented Prince Of Aragon.
Cuts in Shakespeare’s text are minimal, perhaps too minimal for this reviewer, for whom a twenty-minute shorter running time would have made for a more thoroughly engrossing experience. I could have done without most of the Jessica-Lorenzo story, and there’s a good reason why Salerio and Solanio’s names appear only in the most detailed plot summaries. On a more upbeat note, a previous StageSceneLA suggestion that older roles be played by age-appropriate actors appears to have been taken—to positive effect.
Bigley’s scenic design requires cast members to move furniture on and off stage all too often, per Shakespeare’s frequent scene change demands. Fortunately, Nicholas Neidorf’s sound design features a different hit song of the era to fill each blackout, making otherwise lengthy scene switches almost not lengthy enough to savor the well-chosen play list. Cast member Hall doubles effectively as lighting designer. Makysha Barksdale is assistant costume designer. Neidorf is stage manager and props master.
With a number of major theaters offering high-end Shakespeare, it would be easy for a small-scale troupe like The Porters Of Hellsgate to pass under the radar of even frequent L.A. theatergoers. Still, with a dozen Shakespearean plays now under their belt in a mere five years, in addition to an original work and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, these Porters Of Shakespeare are most definitely doing something right. The Merchant Of Venice gives artistic director Charles Pasternak and his crackerjack team of Young Shakespeareans yet another finely cut notch on their belt.
The Whitmore Theatre, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Through September 18. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. Reservations: 818 325-2055
August 12, 2011