Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Merchant of Venice

Tracie Thomason as Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Michael Bailey.
I have been attending the American Shakespeare Center's No Kidding Shakespeare Camp this week. I've had a really good and informative time and will give a full synopsis later. As part of the camp we get to attend performances. Tonight we attended The Merchant of Venice. The show opened officially last week, but there have been a few dress rehearsals and other shows for a few weeks. Stylistically and thematically, the play is odd. I imagine in Shakespeare's time (or 1930s Germany) it was well-received as mostly a raucous comedy with a good in your face comeuppance story. Today, however, it's rather troubling. While I don't feel that Shylock (played masterfully by James Keegan) is a very sympathetic character overall, you can't help but hate his detractors even more as they pile on during the trial and as he faces continual derision and is spat upon throughout the play. I found that several times I would laugh at something and then scorn myself for laughing at or condoning something inappropriate. It's not an easy or light night at the theater. And while there are times you identify with Antonio, Bassanio, Portia and Shylock, there really are no "good guys" in this play and it's very odd that it has this tragic foreboding throughout, and then it turns into something akin to Twelfth Night in the final act.

There are several standout performances in the production. Keegan's Shylock is the consummate characterization of the role. I have never seen Keegan deliver anything but a first-rate performance. He is as steady as they come, not just reliable, but exceptional. ASC newcomer Tracie Thomason turns in a splendid performance as the beautiful and exceedingly wealthy Portia. I look forward to seeing more of her work this season. Chris Johnston is strong as Lorenzo but very nearly steals the show as the foolish and outlandish Prince of Arragon complete with laced cod piece. Benjamin Curns plays the bastard to the hilt as Gratiano, Shylock's trial tormentor and friend of Bassanio. In the final act, he deftly changes back to good old sitcom husband Gratiano. Allison Glenzer, brilliant as always, is wonderful as Nerissa and she and Curns have a witty little pre-show skit. Greg Phelps turns in a strong performance as Bassanio, particularly as concerns his relationship with Portia. Abbi Hawk plays an especially intriguing Jessica, and John Harrell is classic John Harrell as Launcelot Gobbo.

I look forward to seeing this production several more times before its November closing. It really is a masterful production of a very troubling play. Seeing the play prompts me to go back and read it again, particularly the notes (and the note on the text- thank you William Proctor Williams). Don't hesitate to check out this troubling play. It will make you think and reflect upon your own thoughts, and what more should we expect from Shakespeare, but to be entertained and to learn?

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