Big Q Reviews
Kevin Walsh as Shylock in YouTube Promotional Video for The Merchant of Venice. Courtesy WiseFoolTheater.com
Chani Ninneman's impressive production of The Merchant of Venice demonstrates the power of community theater at its best. Staged in the twenty-first-century ultra-modern luxury of the Lincoln Park Middle School Auditorium, Wise Fool Theater's Merchant is graced with an expansive set, complete with soaring broken-column stone arches that hang ominously over the acting space, and a stage-right two-story Venetian townhouse, its doors and windows shuttered to the street below. Home to Shylock and his daughter, this sand-colored edifice looks more like a prison than a family abode. Elsewhere on stage, a staggering of platforms and elevations offer visual variety. For a small-scale, low-budget production, Wise Fool Theater's Merchant is obviously landing successful punches way above its weight, with Jeff Brown's scenic design and fabrication inviting the envy of far larger mainstream production houses.
Local actors, many of whom embrace their roles with clarity and focus, people this world of soft Mediterranean sunlight and sandstone architecture. Clothed for the most part in an authentic "Jacobethan" style, the cast members benefit from the costume designs of Kristen Biles, while the hair stylist Jamie Snyder guarantees Portia's appearance as an A-lister member of Venice's wealthy glitterati. With the effective lighting design of Alex Flinner and sound design of Nicholas Glossen, the creative energy of the production is complete.
Production values alone cannot make a fine drama. Actors, especially those in the principal roles, are what matter most to warmly receptive audiences that brave the inevitable blizzard conditions of early-fall Duluthian theatergoing. Those willing to drive on snow-covered roads were treated to excellent performances, most notably from the actors playing Shylock, Antonio, Bassanio, Portia, and Jessica. The difficult, often homoeroticized, relationship between Antonio and Bassanio was deftly handled by Jason Page and Brad Damon. Witty, sly, and warmly willing to sponsor his close friend's attempt to woo and elevate his status, Page's Antonio offered matinee idol good looks and charm in abundance. Only when confronted by his arch-enemy Shylock did the affable Christian betray his malicious businessman side. Like a puppy dog bounding along beside his master, Damon's Bassanio matched the gentle manliness of his friend, his success at choosing the lead casket and gaining Portia's hand in marriage greeted with childlike glee and embarrassed self-realization.
Antonio's meeting with Shylock was expertly executed, as was the court scene where Shylock attempts to recover his due bond. The tangible malice of these exchanges owed everything to the astonishing performance of Kevin Walsh, whose aged Shylock whined and whistled his malevolent desires until foiled by the male-disguised Portia. Sporting facial hair that seemed to engulf his mouth like a monstrous growth, Walsh's Shylock portrayed a character unvarnished by twentieth-century anti-Semitic sensitivity. This was a xenophobic representation of everything an early modern Christian audience might fear about the "Other".
Walsh embraced his evilness, never shying from the discomfiting language of malice and hate. While some might miss the humanizing elements of Shylock's regret at losing Jessica, the underlying dismay at loss of money and daughter to a Christian gave clarity to this character's eventual financial and religious downfall. In a poignantly conceived theatrical moment at the close of the play, Lindsey Bushnell's Jessica is left onstage clutching her father's red cap to her face as she gazes woefully up at the window of her childhood home. Painful memories, longings, and regrets, as well as daughterly love, spill from this closing image. Bushnell's Jessica truly seems alone and wracked with remorse.
While Venice is gripped by internecine malice, Belmont is likewise gripped by post-mortem psychologically comic dread. Jennie Ross's Portia, destined to follow her dead father's directive to hazard her happiness to a game of chance, offers excellent moments of comedy and delight as she negotiates the minefield of potential suitors who knock at her door. Ably assisted by Maria Lockwood's Nerissa, Ross's Portia greets two unwelcome suitors (the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Aragon), whose respective scenes are conflated into one long casket-opening adventure. When Bassanio does eventually select the right casket, Ross portrays a young woman eagerly willing to forge an alliance with this gold-digging adventurer.
Later, as the lawyer "Balthazar," Portia along with her companion Nerissa suffer the standard plight of never fully convincing the audience that they are "men". It remains a mystery how any cisgendered production of this scene can ever reproduce the cross-cast confusion of a man playing a woman playing a man, although with Walsh's Shylock and Page's Antonio justifiably stealing the scene, nobody seemed to care.
Into this narrative mix explodes Devin P. McKinnon's hipster Lancelot Gobbo. A thankless comic character at the best of times, Lancelot becomes, in McKinnon's deft grip, a rude trickster in league with Jessica, and desperate to elevate his lowly status. An endearing character throughout, McKinnon's Lancelot Gobbo completed the actorly success of the evening.
Chani Ninneman must be congratulated for directing a clear, fast-paced production. With its two-hour forty-minute running time, including fifteen-minute interval that divided the mimed marriage between Lorenzo and Jessica from the second half opening "Casket Scene" and Portia's plaintive call for Bassanio to "tarry," Wise Fool Theater's The Merchant of Venice spared no production expense in offering an accessible, at times refreshingly honest production that benefitted from a Shylock whose delivery and stage presence permeated every scene he occupied. A thoroughly entertaining, visually stunning production that used its obviously (though less noticeably) limited resources to maximum effect.
Big Q Reviews
© Kevin Quarmby, 2017
The Merchant of Venice YouTube Promotional Video
Antonio: Jason Page
Salarino: Andrew Kirow
Solanio: Elissa Hoole
Bassanio: Brad Damon
Lorenzo: Chandler Oja
Gratiano: John Ryde-Crane
Portia: Jennie Ross
Nerissa: Maria Lockwood
Balthazar/Jewish Woman: Hayley Lindbeck
Shylock: Kevin Walsh
Prince of Morocco/Priest: Elizabeth Brophy
Lancelot Gobbo: Devin P. McKinnon
Old Gobbo/Tubal/Duke of Venice: Todd Larson
Salerio: Noah Waters
Jessica: Lindsey Bushnell
Prince of Aragon/Jailer/Priest: Ben Robinson
Director: Chani Ninneman
Scenic Design and Fabrication: Jeff Brown
Lighting Design: Alex Flinner
Sound Design: Nicholas Gosen
Musician: Mina Kaiser
Costume Design and Construction: Kristen Biles
Costume Assistants: Joyce Arnett, Melanie Lundell
Mask Maker: Shari Bradt
Stylist: Jamie Snyder
Producing Artistic Director: Chani Ninneman
Graphic Design: Sek Design
Playbill Composition: Cory Regnier