BWW Reviews: CTC's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is Masterful, Gripping, Sharply Perceptive

Houston's Classical Theatre Company (CTC) has had one amazing season at their new home at Studio 101 in the Spring Street Studios. I was impressed by their productions of MISS JULIE and UBU ROI, but their production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE deftly exposes the sincere theatrical talent that legends are made out of. As affair warning, because this brilliantly raw production is pared down to three actors and utilizes an abridged adaptation by CTC's dramaturg Shea Thomas Cooper, it won't hurt to re-familiarize yourself with the plot to ensure that you don't get lost in this stirring translation of the text.

Shea Thomas Cooper and CTC adapt the play have made a bold and inspired choice to set their version of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE in a sorting room at Auschwitz. As a captivated yet captive audience in the intimacy of Studio 101, we are observers of a command performance of William Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE being given by two prisoners of Auschwitz for a Nazi SS Guard. The only problem in the adaptation is that the script is trimmed down to a 90 minute-ish one act and becomes confusing at times when being delivered primarily by only two actors. Even with distinguishing markers to separate characters and verbalizing stage directions, aspects of the plot get lost in the speed of the delivery. However, none of this disrupts the impact of the words.

John "JJ" Johnston directs the classic tragicomedy with a palpable zeal, keeping the beauty and majesty of William Shakespeare's poetry at the forefront of the performance. However, in this setting a good portion of the comedy comes across as woefully ironic as the yellow Star of David emblazoned on Thomas Prior's costume is a constant reminder of his prisoner's persecution in relation to the persecution of Jews both in Italy as referenced in the play and in England during the time William Shakespeare was writing the play. Each layer of persecution affects the power of the words, making the audience experience them again in a way that mesmerizingly allows them to be fresh and new again. John "JJ" Johnston's direction ensures the production has a sense of immediate urgency that is inescapable and afflicts the audience with the power, weight, and magnitude of William Shakespeare's language, especially the passages that humanize Shylock and allow the audience to sympathize with him.

While the having actors mill about the stage as the audience filters in is not a new pre-show tactic, it is fantastically used in this production. Thomas Prior, wearing the yellow Star of David On his clothing, and Philip Lehl, wearing the pink triangle that labeled people as homosexuals on his clothing, are busy sorting through luggage and belongings of the countless faceless and nameless people who will endure torture, starve, toil, and be exterminated. In the intimate venue, this tactic coupled with the shocking Auschwitz setting instantly hushes most members of the audience. However, when Thomas Prior chokes on an apple that he secretly consumes and falls to the ground, the audience is hooked and engaged. At this moment, a severe hush settled over the opening night audience and didn't let up for the entirety of the performance.

Thomas Prior expertly plays Shylock, Old Gobbo, and Lorenzo in CTC's MERCHANT OF VENICE. Old Gobbo is discerned from his other characters as Thomas Prior uses a cane to play the character and is the butt of some hilarious antics from Philip Lehl's Launcelot due to his blindness. His Lorenzo is youthful, mirthful, and deeply in love with Shylock's daughter Jessica. However, it is his calculating yet sympathetic Shylock, wearing a tattered jacket with a red underlining, that the audience will remember and champion as a stunning and exuberant display of profound stagecraft for some time to come. Paired with the setting, his Shylock is no more villainous than a fly on the wall. Thomas Prior convincingly creates a man that feels he has been taken advantage of and justifiably seeks restitution for the wrongs committed against him. In addition to being swindled because the boats Antonio was counting on to repay his debt are lost at sea, his daughter has been convinced to run away and elope with the Christian Lorenzo. Fighting against harsh stereotyping, he appeals to the courts for justice garnering much sympathy from the audience both as Shylock and the Jewish prisoner in the concentration camp. Thomas Prior's rousing delivery of the "Hath not a Jew eyes" monologue is immaculately wrought with emotional devastation, making it the deeply poignant climax of the production.

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David Clarke David Clarke has had a lifelong love and passion for the performing arts, and has been writing about theatre both locally and nationally for years. He joined running their Houston site in early 2012 and began writing as the site's official theatre recording critic in June of 2013.

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