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The Merchant of Venice @ STAGEStheatre in Fullerton – Review

Written by Alina Mae Wilson 

Nothing says summer like Shakespeare –am I right? Of course, I’m right. Theater upon theater, stage upon stage, and actor upon actor are racing to prepare elegant monologues for the benefit of theatergoers all over this luscious orb we call Earth. Okay, I might be exaggerating. However, the fact remains that the season for Shakespeare is here, so it’s inevitable that we’ll see more than one. The first in the lineup is STAGEStheatre. With their production of The Merchant of Venice and HOLY TOLEDO, they set the bar high. I do not recall the last time I wished to see The Merchant of Venice twice.

The story takes place in 1500s Venice. Antisemitism is totally fine. A young man named Bassanio needs a large sum of money in order to woo his lady love, a wealthy heiress named Portia. His friend Antonio recommends that he procure these funds from an almost universally despised Jewish moneylender called Shylock and use Antonio’s name as an assurance. Shylock acknowledges Antonio as a man of good credit but also brings up the history the two have –namely of Antonio abusing Shylock in the street up to and including SPITTING on him for his Jewish heritage. Eventually, they come to such terms as would satisfy them both. Shylock will lend the money, and if Antonio fails to pay, a pound of flesh will be given from his own body to appease the creditor. Meanwhile, the fair Portia and her handmaidens foil unwanted suitors and make plans to aid the men they truly love with their struggles.

Often theaters will elect to perform Shakespeare but not necessarily with a wardrobe matching the time period or dialogue. STAGEStheatre has done the opposite. Characters wield literal swords while wearing old-fashioned Italian clothing. It is colorful, which should be appreciated given the extensive list of characters. Each person onstage has a fairly unique image, enabling us to distinguish each person from one another. I don’t think we necessarily need clothes to separate one person from the other because the acting is strong enough to do that by itself.

Every actor is believable (and, what’s more, understandable) in their roles. In listening to them speak their lines, you do not hear that aloof, lilting accent that many thespians adopt when attempting Shakespeare. The fact that they talk a little more like we do now, even while using the original dialogue, makes their circumstances a little more relatable to us in the audience. For example, the Prince of Morocco (played by Marcus J. Andrews). He plays a ruler with an exceedingly high opinion of himself and is very much dressed for the part of an old Moroccan royal. He could have gone the whole hog for authenticity and tried his hand at a Moroccan accent or a British one to sound more like an actor playing the part way back in the day. Instead, he struts out looking like a Prince and sounding like a rap artist. He isn’t rapping, mind you, but the way that he gestures and the way that he speaks is done in a much more familiar boasting style that is more relatable to the audience. “I do in BIRTH deserve her!” I support your claim, Prince.

Shylock is a vital part of the story, and he is played beautifully here by Joe Parrish. He is sympathetic without being cloying. While I imagine most theaters portray him kindly these days, I think his humanity is seen much better here than it often is. In the past, I have thought of him as an abused, little, old person and nothing more. Here the show takes a moment or two to acknowledge his relationship with his daughter (played by Alexandra Burke) in a way other theaters have not. I think this makes all of the difference in seeing how much of a real person he is –as opposed to being a caricature of a put-upon saint or a vindictive demon.

I think it’s also essential to mention Portia, the story’s love interest and arguable savior. She is played by Benni Latham, who is nigh-on perfect in this part. She is clever enough to dance circles around the men she encounters but also kind enough and gentle enough to make her desire for a particular one understandable. Watching her hang out with her handmaidens looks like so much fun. I kind of want to join in on what looks like a fun girls’ night.

Special mention of the night goes to Kerri Hellmuth as Nerissa, the lady-in-waiting, and Patrick Peterson as Bassanio’s friend Gratiano.  Hellmuth is hilarious when Nerissa is pushed to her limit, and Peterson jumps back and forth between being a partying trickster and a rabid racist with such ease that you first want to be his friend –then smack the vicious smirk off of his face.

Overall this is an excellent show. The set is okay. The costumes are lovely. The acting is GREAT, and every joke lands. Plus, you’re able to keep the characters straight and follow the Show’s plot –what more could you ask for?  

June 23rd – July 23rd 2017

Exceptional Show
9.3 Overall
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