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Simply Shakespeare

Brian Doxtader | Monday, February 27, 2006

Actors From the London Stage (AFTLS) performed William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” this weekend in the Decio Mainstage of the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts (DPAC). The performance was a part of the Spring ArtsFest and also their regular appearance for the semester.

The play, which is one of Shakespeare’s most controversial comedies, began with a brief prologue that introduced each character and how each actor was going to play him or her. This was an absolute necessity because each actor portrayed multiple characters, sometimes in the same scene. Using costuming or inflected mannerisms, the actors established how they were going to differentiate between each character.

Often, the changes were subtle, especially in the costuming. At times, a sash or sunglasses were the only notable indicators. In previous plays presented by the AFTLS, this sometimes led to confusion as it became difficult to follow who was who. But this particular group of actors’ impressive talent made the play easy to understand throughout.

“The Merchant of Venice” follows Bassanio (Christopher Staines), who needs a loan of 3,000 ducats to properly woo Portia (Isabel Pollen). He approaches his friend Antonio (Gregory Cox), whose fortune is invested in several merchant ships at sea. Antonio gets the loan from the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Tim Hardy).

Shylock bitterly hates Antonio, whom he feels has insulted him for being a Jew. Shylock agrees to the loan on the condition that if it is not fully paid within three months, the penalty is a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Meanwhile, Jessica (Louise Yates) has eloped with Lorenzo (Tim Hardy), much to Shylock’s chagrin.

For a comedy, “The Merchant of Venice” is often quite dark. While it has its share of funny moments, Shylock is a particularly unmerciful character, and his ultimate comeuppance still isn’t fully deserved. Hardy’s portrayal emphasizes the villain dimension, particularly in his powerful rendition of the “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” monologue. But the monologue’s placement right before the intermission cast a surprisingly dark pall over the rest of the proceedings.

Additionally, the Actors From the London Stage version of the play ends on a disquieting note, as Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Louise Yates), who has eloped with Lorenzo (Tim Hardy) learns of her father’s fate. Though Shakespeare probably intended the play to end happily, the ending presented by AFTLS is darkly indefinite. While certainly affecting, this ending seems oddly inappropriate – “The Merchant of Venice” is, after all, a comedy, and an ambiguous ending is thus problematic.

Still, all of the acting was quite good and the play was entertaining and swiftly paced throughout. Hardy’s affected portrayal of Shylock was a standout, as was Cox’s ability to shift between characters at will. On occasion, he even carried out entire conversations with himself while playing two characters.

Staines had a hilarious scene as Arragon, whose comical misfortune was much deserved, and Pollen and Yates seemed to have a great time switching between male and female characters. The use of singing – the actors were excellent singers, especially Hardy, who has a background in opera – and brief musical interludes gave the play a welcome added dimension.

The Decio Mainstage was a good location for the performance. None of the actors used microphones but were still easily audible, even in the balcony. This gave the show a warm, personal feel, and the actors took full advantage of the stage. Most of the time, they sat on stage (even in scenes they were not in), which allowed them to “enter” and “exit” on cue.

Costuming and staging was minimal, as per the AFTLS standard. Most of the cast wore contemporary clothes (button down shirts and pants), but this wasn’t necessarily a deterrent. Never once is “The Merchant of Venice” presented as a period piece, which instead allows the audience to concentrate on the poeticism of Shakespeare’s writing and the skill of the actors. While the performance did rely on some key props, most of them were actually used to help differentiate between characters.

The Actors From the London Stage almost always put on a great show, and “The Merchant of Venice” was no exception. Though only Staines has toured with the group before (as part of 2004’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”), they almost always manage to pull together a great show, despite – or perhaps because of – the performance’s artsy minimalism.