Theater: CityShakes presents ‘The Merchant of Venice’

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Underneath twinkling rope lights in the exposed-brick back room of a storefront in Santa Monica, the City Shakespeare Company brings to life “The Merchant of Venice” with a strong cast, effective stylistic choices and a beautiful performance space.

The company makes the most of a minimal set and places the audience on a few rows of wooden benches right in the middle of the action.

If it’s been a while since high school English class, the plotline of “The Merchant of Venice” essentially follows Antonio (Todd Elliott), who takes out a loan from Shylock (Peter Nikkos) in order to fund his friend Bassanio’s (David Hartstone) quest to woo Portia (Allison Volk), the heiress, under the condition that if the loan is not repaid, Shylock is entitled to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Although typically considered a comedy, “The Merchant of Venice” throws in some intense dramatic scenes (Shylock’s attempting to forcibly remove the aforementioned flesh from Antonio’s chest in open court comes to mind, for instance). These moments are especially powerful in the intimate space: the audience members in the front row are directly confronted by Nikkos as Shylock during the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue, among others.

But, really, this production’s excellence lies in its brilliantly-executed comedy. The supporting cast is as strong as the leads, and the jokes land effortlessly.

Daniel Landberg and Gilbert Martinez are particularly fantastic in their comedic ensemble roles. These two are instrumental in making CityShakes’ production of “The Merchant of Venice” as accessible and laugh-out-loud funny as it is. Additionally, Landberg scores the play with acoustic guitar-playing throughout and interjects a few original songs during key scene changes that help advance the storyline.

CityShakes’ production is so well done, the only real flaws come from the source material itself. “The Merchant of Venice” isn’t often performed in contemporary theaters — most likely because of the hard-to-ignore, heavy-handed anti-Semitism. Shylock is clearly portrayed as a villainous, vengeful Jew in contrast to the righteous and merciful Christian characters. During the play’s denouement, they tell Shylock that they’re going to force him to convert to Christianity, and that’s the happy ending to his story.

Considering these problems exist within Shakespeare’s text, the theater company does a fair job presenting the story and emphasizing mercy and forgiveness as the overall themes of this production. Although, even the play’s portrayal of mercy is questionable, since Shylock is unflinchingly hell-bent on revenge and has to be lectured about compassion by Portia. Director Brooke Bishop addresses this issue in the playbill, writing, “The Merchant of Venice is often thought to have been written from a place of hate — we invite you to watch out production from a place of love, and see what you discover.”

Still, the City Shakespeare Company’s “Merchant of Venice” is an outstanding artistic production. It is incredibly charming in its moments of comedy and romance, and thought-provoking in its most dramatic scenes. It is, altogether, definitely worth watching.

‘The Merchant of Venice’

1454 Lincoln Blvd.

8 p.m. Thursday – Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday

Tickets are $20, or pay-what-you-can at the door on Thursday

For more information, visit www.cityshakes.org.

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