THE MERCHANT OF VENICEby William Shakespeare
Trinity Shakespeare Festival
Directed by Stephen Fried
Scenic Design - Brian Clinnin
Sound Design - Toby Jaguar Algya
Lighting Design - Michael Skinner
Costume Design - Aaron Patrick Turner
Voice & Text Coach - John Patrick
Stage Manager - Anna Lard
Brent Alford - Shylock
Trisha Miller - Portia
David Coffee - Duke of Venice / Old Gobbo / Prince of Arragon
Blake Hackler - Launcelot Gobbo
Richard Haratine - Antonio
Dexter Hostetter - Lorenzo
Chuck Huber - Bassanio
Michael James - Balthasar
Lydia Mackay - Nerissa
Bradley Gosnell - Solanio
Brandon Sterrett - Salerio
G. David Trosko - Gratiano
Kelsey Milbourn - Jessica
Brandon Burrell - Prince of Morocco/Ensemble
Delaney Milbourn - Ensemble
Amber Quinn - Ensemble
Rashaun Sibley - Ensemble
Mitchell Stephens - Ensemble
Amber Flores - Ensemble
Reviewed Performance: 6/15/2012
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Some directors see Shakespeare's plays as a chance to make age-old stories come alive. Some modernize the story to make it accessible to modern audiences. But a few embrace the magnificence in Shakespeare's timeless themes which can be explored in myriad ways. They love the language and demand the same from their casts and the poetry and prose wash over every audience.
Such is the case with Trinity Shakespeare Festival's The Merchant of Venice, under the direction of Stephen Fried. This production will satisfy your curiosity and interest as well as entertain you. Or it may just thrill your addiction to timeless beauty.
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's most troubling and challenging plays. Along with Othello, the play addresses prejudice as no other does. Shylock, a Jewish money lender, is hated by Christians in Venice. Antonio, a Christian merchant, must borrow money from this hated enemy who demands the penalty for non-payment be a pound of flesh. The merchant can't pay and Shylock takes him to court to collect his flesh, the law being on his side, but a mysterious judge arrives to challenge Shylock's suit with the very law he exploits to exact revenge on the merchant.
It's a dark tale with life and death struggles. Oh, there's also a set of love stories running alongside all this darkness, stories that feed, complicate and help resolve the main conflict. Even so, few will leave singing a happy tune but they will know they have seen something important.
Entering the theater, we're struck by a huge semicircular cyclorama hung across the stage. The scene is of a ship thrashing about on an angry sea. The painting by Scenic Designer Brian Clinnin is breathtaking and it wraps around stepped platforms which cover the stage and provide space for action. Bracketed by two towers of gold twisted burl, the stage sets the thematic tone immediately.
On opening, the cyc slowly rises, accompanied by dramatic music, to reveal a deeper stage, back entrances and an increasingly somber atmosphere. At the end of Act I, the cyc falls with an ominous sound, an emotionally arresting cliff-hanger. The cyc reminds me of the barricade in Les Miserables. Married with a strong musical underscore by Toby Jaguar Algya, it is the centerpiece that frames the story.
Acting is crisp and precise, clear and connected with strong characterization. Each actor plays their role close to the text. With a couple of exceptions, the language comes across as clearly and beautifully as it is written. Richard Haratine's Antonio, the merchant of the title, shows a clear arc from his opening persona as a rich, Jew-hating man who lives in the expectation that everything is destined for his success that is until he loses everything and realizes he may pay with his life. Shylock, the Jewish money-lender and object of Antonio's hate, is imbued by J. Brent Alford with a strong persecution complex that turns to vengeful plotting and demand for blood. Their conflict is palpable and easy to understand and this strengthens Shakespeare's thematic question on prejudice.
The entire cast makes strong choices for their various parts and several of them play multiple roles, each with contrasting personalities. This is seen most clearly with Brandon Burrell as The Prince of Morocco and later as a member of the Duke of Venice's court, and in David Coffee's The Prince of Arragon and his Duke of Venice. He even plays another minor role, Old Gobbo, who must take on a completely different character. It's masterfully done.
As good as Burrell's Prince of Morocco and Coffee's Prince of Arragon are, these comic characters are purposely over-the-top, especially in language and voice, but their text becomes unclear in the process. Burrell has a beautiful baritone voice which he pushes to a booming quality, perfect for his character, but difficult to understand textually. The same is true for Coffee, who affects a strong Spanish accent for Arragon, except it too blocks clarity. Both actors create visually stunning, funny characters that make the end result of their pursuit of Portia understandable. But their text is important enough to be understood clearly.
The lead of the love story is Portia. Trisha Miller does a fine job playing first a rich heiress who must give in to her father's whims, then her role in the trial of Antonio and Shylock, and her final position as wife of the husband chosen for her. In the 1600s of Shakespeare and the 1880s of this setting, Venice requires the wife to be subservient to her husband, even if she holds the power and wealth.
The whole ensemble and other named characters, associates of Antonio, Shylock and Portia, contribute important pieces to the story. These actors create their own strong characterizations with their parts, become believable sub-characters in a complex plot, and participate fully in all parts of this story. Main characters tell the basic story but these sub-characters make it a beautiful tale. And these actors did perfect their roles.
The only technical flaw is lighting. Michael Skinner provides a lighting scheme that reinforces the dark theme and most of the time it's flawless, even beautiful, especially as it lights and masks the cyclorama. However, as some actors move to the apron nearest the audience they are too dark to see facial expressions clearly. This is especially true in the opening scene when Antonio exposes the melancholy that foreshadows his later actions. We need to see his expressions.
Aaron Patrick Turner wraps his actors in 1890s period Italian costumes which are both intricate and diverse. In Portia's opening scene, for instance, we see her being dressed by Nerissa, her housekeeper, and her maids. As they layer her with many pieces of clothing it's visually elegant and reveals her station in life. It also accompanies the entire text of her long exposition and makes us interested in her.
Properties are used frequently. What appear to be accurate late-1800s pieces contributes to the setting. One especially stands out. A Victrola player is used to provide on-stage music in several places. Kudos to Properties managers Karen Matheny and Margo Glaser on finding these pieces which fit so well.
The Merchant of Venice is one of William Shakespeare's best plays, in its structure, in the themes it explores, and in opportunities for actors to use their talent. Despite minor flaws, this production shines. The acting talent is top-notch and their work delights the audience. The technical pieces of this production are not only beautiful but support the setting consistently and tell part of this story.
With little to complain about and a lot to acclaim for this production team and cast, I can only believe this is a credit to Stephen Fried and the leadership at Trinity Shakes. I heartily recommend you see this production in its limited engagement.
Jerita Foley Buschman Theatre, Texas Christian University
2800 S. University Drive, Fort Worth, TX 76129
Runs through July 1st in repertory with The Merry Wives of Windsor
Thurs., June 21st, Sat., June 23rd, Sun., June 24th, Wed., June 27th and Friday, June 29th at 7:30 pm; Sunday, July 1st at 2:30pm.
Tickets are $25.oo regular, $20.00 for seniors, $15.00 for TCU staff and faculty, and $10.00 for students. There is a service fee pe