Tag Archives: allison volk

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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Theater: Allison Volk, ‘Rite of Seymour’

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Jeremy Kinser, Bilal Mir and Deborah Jensen star in ‘Rite of Seymour’ at the Son of Semele Theater. Photo courtesy of Drive Theatre Company.

It was a packed house during the closing weekend of Drive Theatre Company’s world premiere production of “Rite of Seymour” at the Son of Semele Theater.

So packed, in fact, that the start of the play was delayed as the crew scrambled to find enough chairs to accommodate the oversold audience, some of which were set up in the only aisle of the intimate space. (“If there’s an emergency… just push the chairs and run for it,” we were instructed.)

Though the space was limited, the production made impressive use of it with atmosphere-enhancing audio and visual elements. The costume design was impeccable, the makeup was very well done, and the sets were detailed and effective.

Playwright Allison Volk’s story follows Helena Gray (Mary Ellen Schneider), a 1950s housewife whose poet husband, Seymour (Robert Paterno), is slowly being “de-evolved” at the hands of a mad scientist/family practitioner (Bilal Mir). Unfortunately for Helena, she realizes this just as Seymour has entered the “homo chimextus” phase — the day before she planned a dinner party to pitch his poetry to a respected publisher.

Of course, that’s no reason to cancel a party. The event turns ultra-zany as Helena attempts to keep her husband’s transformation hidden, the doctor becomes increasingly insane, and the guests cannot keep from arguing amongst themselves.

The look of the play was truly excellent. Paterno skillfully acted as de-evolved Seymour, which, combined with his monkey makeover, was pretty disturbing. Yet convincing! The audience is initially horrified at his appearance but then grows to find him endearing, as do the characters in the play.

The set changes from the doctor’s waiting room to the Grays’ home and back again did take quite a while, but the cast made these changes in costume — often in character — which made them much more interesting. Jeremy Kinser as Mr. Anderson was especially good at this: he took advantage of all of his time onstage to keep the audience entertained and play up his character for extra laughs.

“Rite of Seymour” really excelled in its ensemble scenes. There was good chemistry among the actors, and they were able to effectively deliver jokes and play off one another in these big scenes. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson (Kinser and Deborah Jensen), in particular, gave standout performances and had the best comedic timing of the group.

More low-key scenes that featured only two characters, such as the introduction to Helena in the doctor’s office, dragged on a bit more. The doctor, who fancies himself an innovator similar to Igor Stravinsky, gave a few overly long monologues that emphasized Mir’s uncomfortable onstage demeanor and tendency to thrust his hands into his pockets while performing.

But the overall production of “Rite of Seymour” was a polished group effort. With some trimming of the script in a few key places, the play could be solidified as a more powerful force of comedy.