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

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

Audiences who have seen Philip Lehl on stage know he personally sets a high bar for his craft; yet, here he exceeds the audience's expectations with charismatic and mesmerizing portrayals of Bassanio, Antonio, Launcelot, Salarino, Jessica, Tubal, Portia, and Duke. Constantly changing his mannerisms, altering his voice, and utilizing differing pieces of clothing, Philip Lehl is able to differentiate characters and seamlessly transition from one to the other with breakneck speed. This aids the pacing of the play and adds a lightly comedic touch to the visual presentation, especially in scenes where he plays three or more characters. Bassanio wears a pageboy-like hat, Antonio is unadorned, the immaturely brash and hyperactive Launcelot holds a white hankercheif, Salarino slides on words, Jessica brushes her hair and sits with legs crossed, Tubal laughs and jests like Topol as Tevye, soft-voiced Portia has steepled fingers and wears a sash like a scarf, and the Duke wears the same sash over one shoulder. Moreover, he periodically and realistically wanes in energy, adding a heartbreaking and distressing visual representation of his concentration camp prisoner's malnourishment and suffering. Philip Lehl deftly maneuvers his way through the performance of a lifetime, keeping the audience on their toes, deeply engaged, and entirely fascinated by the plot and William Shakespeare's gorgeous and breath-taking command of the English language.

Matthew Kennan's Nazi is an intimidating figure that we are ever cognizant of in spite of him spending most of the play lingering in the periphery. When our eyes do wander to him, the audience sees that he wondrously appears to be experiencing the prisoners' performance for the first time. In the climatic moments of the THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, he takes over the role of Portia, uttering her lines where she prides herself in beating Shylock in his own game of logic, which adds a disturbingly sinister tone to a moment that is usually played joyously. As the Nazi, Matthew Kennan makes the hate of the Jews tangible and magnificently painful for the audience with his stunning performance.

Scenic Design by Thomas Donahue perfectly recreates the austere starkness of Nazi work camps. Upon seeing it, the set instantly evokes powerful emotions that help the audience encounter William Shakespeare's words as if for the first time.

Alex Jainchill's Lighting Design uses five low hanging lamps and lighting instruments without gels to create a sober and harsh workplace lighting effect. As the play progresses towards its climax, reds slowly start to invade the space. These reds are most noticeable on the bare concrete columns and on the cyclorama behind the backdrop. Yet, the red is replaced with resilient and powerful whites when Portia turns the tide on Shylock, mirroring the lighter emotionality of William Shakespeare's work. Conversely, as darkness pervades the Auschwitz setting and the SS Guard becomes an active participant in the play, Alex Jainchill's lights shift again, incorporating moody atmospheric blues and blood reds, which adds surprising depth and emotional affect to the production's final and heartbreaking moments.

Costume Design by Blair Gulledge perfectly captures character and time period. The prisoners' clothes are dirty, tattered, and visibly worn. The guard's costume is bright, polished, and looks brand new.

Tim Thompson's Sound Design utilizes ambient noises that help set the tone and adds believability to the setting, with the most intense and moving moment of the design being the ring of a gun shot followed by the barking of dogs at the top of the show.

CTC's masterful, gripping, and sharply perceptive presentation of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE will entertain while provoking deep and potent thought. Their treatment is visually and mentally alarming and arresting, guaranteeing that audiences will experience William Shakespeare's classic in a novel way, even if they have been privy to any of the previous productions of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE set in a concentration camp.

CTC's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE runs through April 14, 2013 at Studio 101 in the Spring Street Studios at 1824 Spring Street, Houston, TX. For more information and tickets, please visit or call (713) 963 - 9665.

Photos by Pin Lim, courtesy of Classical Theatre Company.

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BWW Reviews: CTC's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is Masterful, Gripping, Sharply Perceptive
L to R: Thomas Prior & Philip Lehl

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

BWW Reviews: CTC's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is Masterful, Gripping, Sharply Perceptive
L to R: Thomas Prior & Philip Lehl

BWW Reviews: CTC's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is Masterful, Gripping, Sharply Perceptive
L to R: Matthew Keenan & Thomas Prior

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