Mr. Ross as set designer created a simple, effective tile floor accented by the giant-sized outline of a Star of David. Simple blocks and benches serve as furniture which are quickly shifted during brief blackout or semi-dark scene changes. Diane Malone's stunning costumes in dark Renaissance tones and elegant fabrics could have been stolen from Rembrandt paintings.
Darrin Newhardt's original music is appropriately atmospheric and nicely done. He used the operatic device of a theme to denote different characters and wrote a lovely guitar-accompanied ballad to Shakespeare's words “Tell me where is fancy bred.” This, by the way, was gracefully sung by the multi-talented Mr. Stringham.
Shylock (Allan S. Ross) and Bassanio (Nick Lawson). Costumes by Diane Malone.
Portia (pert Christie Beckham) is a clever, wealthy young woman whose late father left her marriage plans to fate: A suitor must select one of three boxes – the prize box contains her picture. There are all sorts of comic manipulations before Bassanio chooses the correct box, and more afterwards when his ships are lost and he is unable to repay the loan. Portia gives Antonio twice the sum for Shylock, but the money-lender takes him to court and refuses any payment. He demands his pound of flesh and is about to carve it when the day is saved by a young lawyer.
The lawyer is Portia, dressed as a man, who thwarts and double-thwarts the vengeful Shylock, finally stripping him of everything he values, including his religion. Along the way, she offers the familiar speech about mercy: “The quality of mercy is not strained.”
February 19, 2015
Holding a mirror up to society is one of
the most valuable aspects of the arts. That
is as true today as it was in the time of
William Shakespeare's England, when –
for reasons of fear, misinformation,
whatever – anti-semitism and racism were
part of the culture.
Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice”
(circa 1595-98) involves those issues, but
their treatment is matter-of-fact: They are
what they are. In Matthew Byron Cassi’s
director's note for the production at The
Classic Theatre, he says he brought no
particular approach to the comedy,
suggesting that the playgoer's own baggage
and perspective will color the experience.
The key to any production of “Merchant” is
the actor portraying Shylock, the multi-
faceted Jewish money-lender who may be
cruel, selfish and defiant, but is also pathetic.
Allan S. Ross turns in a powerful, sometimes
understated performance that defies the
stereotype too often seen in other stagings.
Mr. Cassi has surrounded him with a fine
supporting cast, from the principals down to
the non-speaking servants.
Two interwoven plotlines involve Antonio (well-drawn by Mark Stringham), a merchant whose funds are tied up in his commercial ships. His friend Bassanio (impressive newcomer Nick Lawson) has squandered his fortune and needs 3,000 ducats to woo his beloved Portia. Antonio helps him by borrowing the funds on Bassanio's behalf from Shylock, who plainly has endured much abuse from Antonio. Shylock makes him sign an agreement that if the sum is not repaid within a specific time, Antonio must forfeit a pound of his own flesh.
It may sound complicated, but the storylines are easy to follow with Mr. Cassi and his forces smoothing them out with brisk, well-reasoned staging and credible acting. John Stillwaggon is delightful as the bubbly Gratiano, who weds Portia's maid Nerissa (Allie Perez). Susi Lopez is a sympathetic Jessica, Shylock's put-upon daughter who not only elopes with Lorenzo (Terence Brandon White), she also converts to Christianity.
For pure comic relief, there is that rubber-faced imp Dru Barcus as Launcelot, who is just plain silly when he gives voices to a banana and
a loaf of bread. He is well-matched, however, by John T. Boyd, whose Solanio rolls around in mock agony when he imitates Shylock's ambivalence over losing his daughter versus losing the bag of money
she took when she eloped.
Mr. Ross offered an especially moving delivery of Shylock's famous
speech against prejudice containing the lines “If you prick us, do we
not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall
we not revenge?" At the trial's conclusion, when he was prostrate with grief over the judgment, it was his agonized reaction to the directive
to convert that struck home – that humanized him.
The play began with an intriguing sort of prelude accompanied by an attractive score for strings – a mime of Shylock being bedecked with massive golden chains and other jewelry.
That's just one of the reasons to revisit one of Shakespeare's most fascinating plays, done with eloquence and strong artistic commitment.
“The Merchant of Venice” runs through March 1 at The Classic Theatre, 1924 Fredericksburg Rd. Call 589-8450 or 1-800-838-3006.
Launcelot (Dru Barcus)
In mimed prelude, Shylock (Allan S. Ross) is bedecked with jewelry.
Classic Theatre/’The Merchant of Venice'
A pound of prejudice
Above: Shylock (Allan S. Ross) defeated.
Left: Portia (Christie Beckham) in lawyer guise
Photos: Siggi Ragnar