Theatre Review: HART’s “The Merchant of Venice”

Ryan Artzberger, Charles Goad, and Eric J. Olson in HART’s “A Merchant of Venice”

Last Saturday, my friend and fellow storyteller, Sue Grizzell, packed a yummy picnic for us.  When I got off work from my day job, we drove downtown to the White River State Park and spread a blanket on the grass in the amphitheatre in order to see the Heartland Actors’ Repertory Theatre’s one-night-only production of “The Merchant of Venice.”

I had never seen this particular piece by William Shakespeare, and if I had ever had to read it in school, I sure didn’t remember anything about it now.  I worried that I would not be able to understand what was going on, but I had not had time even to look up the Sparknotes before Saturday night.  I decided that if worse came to worst, I would just enjoy watching all the handsome men in gorgeous costumes.

The costumes, designed by Kathleen “Kegan” Egan, were gorgeous, and so were the men, but director Michael Shelton and the cast had also made the whole piece very accessible.  As far as I could tell, they had not adapted the language – it still sounded “Shakespeare-y” rather than modern – but they spoke it very clearly and illuminated it brilliantly through their actions.  Their skillful choices about how to say each line, and how to block each scene, made it possible for me to forget that I was improving my cultural literacy.  I got caught up in the story. 

This is the one about Shylock, a Jew who lends money to all kinds of people in Venice and charges them interest.  When one of his Christian detractors, Antonio, asks him for capital to fund some business ventures, Shylock says, basically, “Okay, but you have been hateful in your prejudice against me and my people all your life, so if you can’t pay me back, I want a pound of your flesh instead.”  Antonio rashly agrees.

This is also the one about Portia, a wealthy young woman whom lots of men want to marry, including Bassanio, poor Antonio’s friend.  Bassanio is basically penniless, too, and he offers nothing in the way of useful political connections, so Portia really should not marry him.  But she loves him!  So she sets up a sort of test for all of her suitors in the hopes of not alienating any of them: choose the right box – the gold, the silver, or the lead – and win her hand.

Chuck Goad played Shylock in a way that made me sympathize with him, even though I think today’s credit card companies are evil.  Goad’s layered portrayal showed how a basically good man can turn stubborn and cruel when pushed too far by prejudice and grief.  (Shylock’s daughter, Jessica – played joyfully by Phoebe Taylor – leaves home to marry a Christian, Lorenzo, played with equal joy by Sam Fain.  This breaks Shylock’s heart.)

Eric J. Olson gave Antonio the heart of a businessman who has some problems with bigotry but who sincerely wants to do right by his friends and investors.

I wasn’t sure about Rebecca Masur, the actor who played Portia, at first.  Her halter-top tan lines were visually distracting against her Shakespearean gown and Sue helped me articulate that Portia’s voice was distractingly nasal and grating.  But it makes sense that the beautiful but bossy Portia would have a strident voice to match, and after a while I forgot about the tan lines.  Masur was a hoot (and had a gentler, more pleasing voice) as the visiting “male” judge at Antonio and Shylock’s trial.

And in any case, Portia and Bassanio had just-right chemistry.  When they kissed for the first time, I cheered.  And sighed, “Ah, love.”  What a great scene!  What romantic portrayals!  Ryan Artzberger as Bassanio reminded me of every good-hearted but clueless man with whom I have ever been smitten.

His pal, Gratiano, was a cutie, too, and very funny.  Ben Tebbe (pronounced with a long “e” at the end) portrayed Gratiano as so drunk in his first scene that he had no inhibitions about stealing nibbles from people’s picnic baskets on his way in!  Later, both he and his own beloved, Portia’s handmaiden, Nerissa (Diane Timmerman), were hilarious in the scene in which the two new husbands are trying to explain to their new wives why they are no longer wearing their wedding rings.

Sylvia, Portia’s other handmaiden (or maybe she and Nerissa were ladies-in-waiting, I’m not sure), was played by Jamison Kay Garrison.  She didn’t have many lines, but she conveyed volumes by the expressions on her face as the various suitors examined the three boxes.  She also played a kind of stringed instrument to accompany some of the scenes.

One of the suitors was the bold Morocco, played by Monte Leon Tapplar.  I knew he would not choose the correct box, but I enjoyed his attitude-filled deliberations.

Scot Greenwell was a riot as the highly emotional servant, Lancelot.  Oh, my, I am laughing out loud again, remembering the way he told us about the dueling conversation between his inner fiend (which was located in his elbow) and his conscience (which took the form of fluttering bird-hands.)  Every time he was on stage, I just barked with laughter.

Two actors played multiple “small” roles and played them with admirable precision and wit:

Adam O. Crowe had no lines as Morocco’s servant, but he made everyone laugh with the expression on his face when Morocco offered to slice his (the servant’s) wrist in order to prove to Portia that their blood was red as hers.   Later, as Aragon, who was one of Portia’s suitors trying to choose the right box, Crowe made us laugh again as his neck swiveled in time with the accompanying music.   He also played the stern Duke presiding over the trial between Antonio and Shylock.

Matthew Roland was funny and fascinating as Old Gobbo, the blind, bent-over, old father of Lancelot.  He spoke in a broken Italian accent, and when he peered up at us, quivering, we could see that his teeth were permanently bared in a well-meaning grimace.  He carried a covered bird cage for his son to give to his prospective employer, Bassanio, as a present.  But when Bassanio uncovered the cage, instead of a pheasant ready for cooking, there was a stinky, old, dead crow.  Bassanio politely handed the crow to someone in the first row of the audience for safekeeping.

(That someone happened to be actor Kurt Owens, who had not been expecting it.  However, Owens rose to the occasion and took the crow through the crowd at intermission, letting us all of us hear its mechanical “Caww!  Caaww!” up close.  I half-expected it to stink, too, based on the expression on Bassanio’s face, but it did not.)

Roland was also funny as Aragon’s assistant.  He was puzzling (or maybe not) as Tubal, a Jew who seemed to be Shylock’s friend, but who only agreed to search for Jessica for a fee, and who abandoned Shylock at the trial. 

Salerio (Glenn de Roziere) and Solanio (Jeff Keel) were two friends of Bassanio and Antonio who seemed to be doing a good job (whatever that means) but who never really differentiated themselves in my mind, except that Salerio’s microphone rarely seemed to work.  I was relieved to read later that “Sal” and “Sol” are not supposed to be all that different.  They are the gossips of the play, and serve to give the audience information about what’s been happening to the characters off stage. (Source: the Salerio/Solanio page of a fun website called “The Virtual O.”  It was developed by undergraduate students in Joe E. Jeffreys’ class at New York University in 2000.)

Except for Salerio’s microphone, the sound of both the actors and the recorded musical interludes (composed by Justin Rust) was satisfyingly clear and strong.  (Sound design by Michael Shelton.  Nathan Garrison was the stage manager.)

The set, constructed by Glen Bucy and Creative Carpentry, basically consisted of three sturdy trunks, which served as the three “caskets” in Portia’s test, but which also served as furniture in other scenes.  Some scenes took place in front of a very low barrier that protected the lighting wires I think, while others took place on the larger lawn behind the barrier.  The actors entered from one of two breaks in the limestone bordering the river.  The waterfall nearby provided a soothing natural aural background.

The river was a beautiful visual background to the lawn “stage” but because of daylight savings time, the sun was right in the audience’s eyes for a good portion of the first act.  The sun made an obnoxiously bright bar of light across the water, too, which meant that watching the show was physically very painful, even dangerous, for a while.  I yearned for some sort of panel or shield between the actors and the sun arrow.

However, after the sun went down, and the temporary stage lights came up, the show was a pleasure to watch.   (Lighting design by Laura Glover.  Stage/audio/lighting rental from Indy Pro Audio.)

Sue and I recognized the American Sign Language interpreters, Joyce Ellinger and Cathy Covey.  They interpret at Storytelling Arts of Indiana events, too.

There were lots and lots and LOTS of people in the audience; they packed and then overflowed the large amphitheatre.  Standing people lined the railings overlooking it.  Whenever I glanced up, they seemed as enrapt as the rest of us.

The crowd included several theatre people.  Mostly we just exchanged greetings, which was fun, but one actor, Sara Locker, introduced herself to me and thanked me for my review of “Proof” at Theatre on the Square a few months ago.  I did enjoy that show, and enjoyed being reminded of it.  I asked Locker what she was working on now.  She told me that she and Bill Simmons will appear in “Same Time Next Year” at the Brown County Playhouse this fall.  In the meantime, she and Kate Ayers have a show called “On the Rag: Heavy Flow” in the Indy Fringe Festival coming up at the end of this month.  I remember their fearlessness in last year’s “On the Rag: Fully Dilated,” but that was pre-blog.  Here is a link to what I posted at the time on Indiana Auditions to direct people to the comments of two other IA’ers.

I wish I could give you a number to call so that you could go see HART’s “The Merchant of Venice” if you missed it Saturday night, but as I mentioned earlier, this was a one-night-only run.  However, HART’s next event will be a “Trivia Night” fundraiser.  It will be at Pat Flynn’s pub at 52nd and Allisonville at 7 pm on Saturday, August 16.  Entry fee is $10.  Four-person teams will compete for prizes.

There are three more shows in the free series of arts events at the White River State Park.  The next one is the Asante Children’s Theatre on Saturday, August 23, 2008.   That show will be at 2:30 in the afternoon, so no worries about the sun being in your eyes.

My friend, Sue, took her daughter to the show by Dance Kaleidascope last weekend.  They both enjoyed it very much.  That show included a pre-show dance demonstration specifically for children.  Sue’s daughter received a lovely educational coloring book as part of it.

If you go to one of the three shows that are left in this series, you may have to pay $5 for parking, depending on what else is going on in the park.  Get there as early as you can so that you can claim a good seat with your picnic blanket and/or folding chairs.  If you do use chairs, please be courteous and don’t set them up right in front of people who only have a blanket!  Set up your chairs with their backs against one of the limestone steps instead.  

Like excellent public libraries, excellent roads, excellent anything, Saturday night’s excellent free show by a professional theatre company was not really “free.”  It was simply paid for directly by someone other than most of the people in the audience.  I think the largest contributors towards making it free of charge were the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission, the Indianapolis Foundation, and Barnes & Thornburg.  I am grateful to these groups and to anyone who helped make Saturday night’s “free” treat possible.

And it really was a treat!  Ah, Bassanio, Gratiano…I am swooning again.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

2 thoughts on “Theatre Review: HART’s “The Merchant of Venice””

  1. Thank you coming the show and so glad you enjoyed it! I’m only bummed that Shylock didn’t make you swoon 🙂

  2. But he did! Chuck, you look SO HOT in that beard! (laughing) I was afraid I would take away from your excellent portrayal of the character if I confessed what else I had been thinking.

    (laughing some more)

    Oh, what a good show this was.

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