It may seem heretical to suggest that sitting through a play written by the Bard takes work. It might be even more preposterous to make such an observation when the play is being staged at a theater company that uses his name as their cornerstone, but let’s be honest: If Shakespeare’s texts were easy to decipher, scholars would not spend countless hours wracking their brains over meaning and interpretation. While his influence is found in nearly every dramatic work that has ever been written, the source material can be a heavy lift and if not performed well, it can be downright dreadful.
Scholars and casual theatergoers alike can rejoice in the fact that Shakespeare and Company has mounted an intelligent and accessible production of The Merchant of Venice which will leave audiences simultaneously provoked and entertained. Technically considered a comedy, there are few rib-ticklers in this famously anti-Semitic work.
In case you weren’t paying attention in school, here’s a brief breakdown of the plot: The Merchant of Venice begins with Bassanio (Shahar Isaac), a young man who needs money to marry fair and lovely Portia (Tamara Hickey). He asks Antonio (John Hadden), whose wealth is in ships. Antonio tells Bassiano that he’ll give him the loan if Bassanio can find a lender. Bassanio turns to Shylock (Jonathan Epstein), a Jewish moneylender, and names Antonio as guarantor. If the loan isn’t repaid, Shylock wants flesh. Sort of odd, but it’s more symbolic because Antonio is a Christian and Shylock thinks Christians are a bit much. Guess what? The proverbial “you-know-what” hits the Elizabethan fan: Antonio’s ships get lost at sea, the line of Portia’s potential suitors grows bigger than the crowd for the Hamilton lottery, and Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Kate Abbruzzese), decides to take daddy’s money and run off with a Christian named Lorenzo (Deon Griffin-Pressley). Oy gevalt! Then there are more romantic complications, a court case in which characters disguise themselves, and the famous “hath not a Jew eyes” speech.
Under Tina Packer’s flawless direction, the cast excels at performing the dense language with pure conversational tone. Epstein is an especially marvelous Shylock and creates a layered performance that lends sympathy to a character that is all too often vilified. The rest of the ensemble-for the most part- speaks the speech “trippingly on the tongue” and keeps the action brisk and focused.
In the program notes, Packer is quick to point out that both she and the cast “never tried to make anything ‘nice’” and “resolved not to back off”. It works. There are moments that will incite wincing, but this is what turns blatant social commentary into a vehicle for change. This treatment has the flavor of a Norman Lear sitcom, causing us to reflect and shudder on our prejudices. As a result, we take a second look, determine what we can do improve our thoughts and relations, and ultimately change our negative perception of “the others” to one of fairness. It couldn’t be a more timely sentiment, given the racial and political fractures that dominate our headlines.
Modern references also add some spice to Kris Stone’s simple but elegant and symbolic set, which takes place in the round. Tyler Kinney’s costumes are also beautiful and appear to be authentic. However, since I wasn’t alive during the 16th century, I cannot be certain. What I am certain of is that this is a mighty potent production, one in which your investment of time will yield great reward.
Ugly Lies The Bone
At first glance, Ugly Lies the Bone seems to be a curious choice for summer fare and yet, there really is better time to honor and remember our soldiers. Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino’s 90 minute emotional blizzard introduces us to Jess (Christianna Nelson), a solider who returns to her home Titusville, Florida after several tours in Afghanistan. With extreme burns and unbearable pain, she is left with a sense of defeat and hopelessness. Her saving grace is technology in the form of a video game that provides alleviation from her constant, agonizing pain. The management technique is known as Virtual Reality.
Jess re-connects with her former childhood sweetheart, Stevie (Hamish Allan-Headley) and learns that he is now married. Jess’ sister, Kacie (Rory Hammond) does what she can to reconnect with her sister, but Kacie’s boyfriend, Kelvin (Dylan Chalfy), does little to help strengthen the relationship.
It is not as easy play to watch and yet Ferrentino’s script provides a few moments of levity and humor. It is not unlike the stories we’ve seen on the big screen in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker. It also brings to mind Donald Margulies’ play Time Stands Still, in which a wounded photojournalist returns to her Brooklyn apartment to put her life back together. All of them pose the same question: How do the hellish experiences of war shape our ability to reacclimate into our everyday lives? As civilians, we don’t have firsthand knowledge. We only have news stories and dramatized accounts like Ugly Lies The Bone. Fortunately however, we have the hard won freedoms that our military has sacrificed. Perhaps spending 90 minutes in their shoes can be a minor token of our appreciation and respect?
Shakespeare and Company (70 Kemble Street Lenox, MA) in the beautiful Berkshires.
The Merchant of Venice runs through August 21st. Ugly Lies The Bone runs through August 28th .
For tickets and a complete season listing, visit http://www.shakespeare.org/ or call the box office: (413) 637-3353.