- OnStage Massachusetts Critic
Lenox, MA - Masterfully directed by Shakespeare and Company founder Tina Packer, The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is, though written hundreds of years ago, still shockingly relevant to our current world and the societies within it. It is known to be one of the most controversial of Shakespeare’s plays due to the extreme themes of racism, sexism and religious prejudice. Though it was written as a comedy, and it certainly has its share of humor, its tense themes make it feel more often like a tragedy. While this play deals with some heavy and intense topics it is also a play about love. The love shared between friends, the love of a father for his daughter, the love of two young people with different religious backgrounds, the love of a man for his wife and a wife for her husband. The characters in this play face many challenges, but it is those complex challenges and how they deal with them that make them relatable for a new generation of theatre goers.
The newly redesigned Tina Packer Playhouse has been reconfigured to present plays in-the-round style and therefore allows the audience to sit on all four sides of the rectangle stage while the action takes place not only in the center, but also in the aisles and in close proximity to the audience. It allows the audience to be involved with the characters and become fully immersed in the story. The play opens in darkness with the cast moving through the space in masks. Immediately the audience is transported. When the lights come on, a popular pop song starts playing and the cast starts dancing, the perplexed audience wonders which direction the play is going. Is it full of darkness with people hiding behind masks not revealing who they really are? Or is it full of laughter and light with people removing their masks so their true self is seen? I believe this play to contain both darkness and light, and for the characters to hide behind a mask, literally or figuratively, until their true self is revealed.
The cast as a whole was fully committed to their characters and worked seamlessly together to provide a captivating and powerful piece of theatre. The cast includes many company veterans as well as newcomers. Featured in the role of Jewish moneylender Shylock is Jonathan Epstein who is no stranger to the role having played him a number of times during his long career. The cast also includes: Kate Abbruzzese as Jessica (Shylock’s daughter), Peter Anderson as Solonio, Jason Asprey as Graziano, Erick Avari as Duke/ Prince of Morocco/ Prince of Aragon, Thomas Brazzle as Launcelot Gobbo, Michael Fuchs as Old Gobbo/ Tubal/ Carsini, Deaon Griffin-Pressley as Lorenzo, John Hadden as Antonio, Tamara Hickey as Portia, Cloteal L. Horne as Salarino, Shahar Isaac as Bassanio, Bella Merlin as Nerissa, and Dylan Wittrock as Salerio.
While I do not want to give the entire story away, I do recommend reading it before attending the performance. And reading it afterwards couldn’t hurt either. That being said I wanted to highlight a few outstanding performers and parts of this production. The first is the amusing performance of both the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Aragon by Erick Avari. His attempts to win the heart of Portia while trying to decide which decorated box contained her portrait, was light and fun. His vocalizations and characterizations of both Princes were vastly different, but each highly entertained the audience.
In act three, Shylock is confronted by friends of Lorenzo, with whom his daughter has fled. He delivers a speech about the Jews and the Christians that speaks volumes of humanity and the path it has taken since the play was written. Epstein, who to this point had been delivering a great performance, escalated with conviction and passion Shylock’s speech to completely enthrall the audience to the edge of our seats. With every comparison, He brought a clearer understanding of how our humanity has not come as far as we thought it had. People are still divided, though ultimately we are all the same as Shylock says, “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases…as a Christian is?”. When his speech was over those who confronted Shylock beat him and in that moment the audience felt for Shylock and we realized our reality was still far too similar to the world of the play. Later in the courtroom we were again captivated as Shylock made his case against Antonio who was to give him a pound of his flesh as payment for the 3,000 ducats Bassanio had gotten as a loan in order to wed Portia. As tensions mounted and the audience was once again on the edge of our seats, Tamara Hickey as Portia, disguised as young doctor Balthazar, delivered a powerful argument to save the life of Antonio. She dominated the scene with vocal strength and sophistication while subtly including the wit and spunk of Portia. She did not merely play a woman playing a man trying to win a court case; rather she fervently fought for not only justice, but sympathy, compassion and mercy. This powerful scene is one of the most incredibly well done scenes in the show.
Working along with director Tina Packer on this production are associate director Elizabeth Aspenlieder, and assistant directors Noa Egozi and Raphael Massie. The creative team also includes Daniel Levy (composer/sound designer), Matthew Miller (lighting designer), Tyler Kinney (costume designer), Kris Stone (set designer), Kristin Wold (choreographer & movement director), and Jonathan Croy (fight choreographer). Part of the set/lighting included various sized clear spheres with small objects inside and they changed color depending on the scene. The costumes were period to the play and beautifully rich in color and texture.
Due to the intense subject matter this play is best appreciated by an adult audience. It is an incredibly poignant and thought-provoking work that is sure to spark conversations among those to see it. The Merchant of Venice is playing in the Tina Packer Playhouse until August 21st and runs about three hours including intermission. Tickets and more information can be found at www.shakespeare.org.
For more of my reviews and theatrical thoughts check out: http://intheatresome1isalwayswatching.blogspot.com/