Thursday, October 20, 2016

reviews - THE MERCHANT OF VENICE - Southwest Shakespeare Company

the cast of Merchant of Venice
photo: Matt Chesin

highlights from local critics reviews - (click link at bottom of each review to read complete review)

Click here for more information on this production that runs through October 29th.

"Originally classified as one of William Shakespeare's comedies, The Merchant of Venice proves a bit of a challenge for theatre companies due to the tragic and ugly anti-Semitic elements which are very much at odds with the many comedic moments in the script. While they aren't able to completely resolve the complex issues inherit in the play for modern audiences, Southwest Shakespeare Company's production has a talented cast and capable direction which includes an added final scene that helps emphasize the horrific outcome of the religious prejudice that several characters in the show possess.
....Shylock was originally portrayed as the comical villain of the piece and his comeuppance was, assumedly, cheered by audiences who thought he got what he deserved. However, with the rise of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust, times and views have changed. Those shifting sentiments have now turned Shylock into more of the hero of the story, with many of the other characters now being the villains and their behavior is somewhat shocking and completely inexcusable due to their treatment toward him. ...the many humorous scenes and comical characters, which take up the bulk of the piece, are now vastly at odds with the dramatic moments which portray the horrible treatment of Shylock. ...this production has a talented cast led by Mike Traylor who is giving a heartwrenching and sensitive portrayal of Shylock as a strong man who has suffered much hatred....As Antonio, Clay Sanderson delivers a well-mannered portrayal of this man who is full of animosity and hatred....Alison Campbell and Kyle Sorrell provide clear and layered performances as the excitable lovers Portia and Bassanio. ...David Dickinson plays three comedic parts and his buffoonish, brood portrayals, while very fun in a stand-alone way, are unfortunately majorly at odds with the dramatic scenes where Shylock is repeatedly called a "Jewish dog" or spit on. Director Kent Burnham ...adds on a coda to the end, right after Shakespeare's happy ending, which shows what becomes of Shylock. It is a stunning moment, though it doesn't quite discount the disjointed moments that came before it.... The Merchant of Venice is still a thought provoking, powerful and important piece of drama full of honesty, truthfulness and ugliness. The play's theme of religious prejudice still resonates with modern audiences, especially in the current political climate, in which some people believe that all Muslims are branded as potential terrorists. Southwest Shakespeare Company's production features a very good cast and clear direction and a brief added ending scene that helps show the tragic outcome that transpires from the horrific religious hatred that the play portrays.Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

" “The Merchant of Venice” is one of William Shakespeare’s most controversial plays. Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production proves it is as timeless as it is contentious....The play has been set in pretty much every era and time period imaginable over the past 500 years; Southwest Shakespeare Company sets theirs in the U.S. during the late 1920s, presumably just prior to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that helped trigger the Great Depression. ...Performances and perceptions of “The Merchant of Venice,” particularly of the character Shylock, have varied and morphed according to current cultures over the past 500 years, and it’s no surprise that Southwest Shakespeare Company keeps Shylock a complicated character, simultaneously a sympathetic figure and a villain....Actor Mike Traylor gives a superb performance as Shylock, with a bent-over posture in a suit slightly too large for him that makes him seem small ...and a multicultural accent that sounded simultaneously like a Jewish person from New York, a Hispanic man, and an Arab – which somehow worked quite well...there is hardly a wholly admirable character in all of “The Merchant of Venice,” save for perhaps Portia, played with aplomb by a black-bobbed, flapper-looking Alison Campbell. But the performances are great across the board, from the portrayals of Bassanio’s friends as zoot suited wise guys to David Dickinson’s flamboyant performances as Launcelot Gobbo, the Prince of Morocco, and the Prince of Aragon. ...The cast and director Kent Burnham season the production with subliminal symbols...given the potent and poignant closing scene, which was not in Shakespeare’s original play but which elevates Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production to “must-see” status, regardless of how many times you’ve read or seen “The Merchant of Venice” already. That’s all we’ll say about that. You really should see it for yourself. When watching a play that’s been around for half a millennium, audience members may ask themselves if there’s anything new or different a company could bring to the table. Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” is a resounding “yes.”" --Niki D'Andrea, Phoenix Magazine (click here to read the complete review)

"...director Kent Burnham’s attempt to balance the play’s comedic aspects with its endemic anti-Semitism shows just how difficult a needle “The Merchant of Venice” is to thread for modern audiences....Burnham has re-set the play at the tail end of the Roaring Twenties in New York City...Far more problematic is the premise that the law might stand behind a legal document that has one party consent to being murdered by the other....Like most contemporary directors, Burnham attempts to deal with the anti-Semitic premise by underlining, rather than glossing over, the bigotry of the times. .. But he also aims to have his cake and eat it too by playing up the comedy, which undermines his attempts to grapple with the play’s disturbing content.....the quality of acting here varies widely. Kyle Sorrell is endearingly sincere as Bassanio, Antonio’s bosom buddy and the eventual winner of Portia’s hand in marriage. And Keath David Hall is a certified scene stealer as Gratiano, Bassanio’s earthy sidekick. Traylor’s Shylock, on the other hand, does this production no favors. He makes a sincere attempt at humanizing the character, but his faux Eastern European accent unfortunately comes off as yet another caricature, and his overacted pathos fails to bring Shylock to life... " Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic (click here to read the complete review)

"...Contemporizing Shakespeare's plays isn't an original concept, but its application in the current production works especially well and reflects a series of astute decisions by director Kent Burnham that enhance the work's accessibility, relevance, and poignancy....On one side is Shylock (played with painful solemnity by Mike Traylor), the usurer, the object of anti-Semitic scorn, for whom a deal is a deal as matter of both good business and honor....It is to Portia (Alison Campbell), on the other side, that, in addition to sorting out a mix of comical suitors (all played with verve by David Dickinson), the charge will fall to mediate Shylock's claim and seek justice. It is and always has been, admittedly, a difficult and shaky experience to watch Shylock's drama and fate unfold while the giddy subplots of romantic relationships rock and roll. It is a tension that causes one to wonder about Shakespeare's intentions and, thus, has been the subject of numerous analyses.....James Lasdun, the novelist and poet, writes, "...are we watching a play about antisemitism, or an antisemitic play?"...It is, at least, one of the questions then as well as the relevance of the issues inherent in the play that make MERCHANT such an altogether absorbing, intriguing, restless and gratifying experience.Kent Burnham has created a solid platform for both reflection and entertainment and can now add THE MERCHANT OF VENICE to a string of creative and inspired successes, most notably last year's thoroughly delightful Wittenberg. His cast has acquitted themselves well in defying gravity and presenting an uplifting and provocative performance that bears witnessing." Herbert Paine, Broadway World (click here to read the complete review)

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