BWW Review: Southwest Shakespeare Company Presents THE MERCHANT OF VENICE ~ Virtual Classics Live
These are the times that try the souls of theatre people. COVID-19 lockdowns have prompted inspired initiatives to stay visible and viable, to retain audience interest and engagement, and to practice and preserve one's art form muscles. With an eye to keeping theatre top of mind and artists top of form, many companies have gone virtual, offering "live" performances on their Facebook pages and YouTube channels.
In this spirit, Southwest Shakespeare Company has launched the Virtual Classics Live Series, the latest edition of which featured THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. (Showcased for live streaming on May 23rd, the program is available on the Company's Facebook page.)
To his great credit, Irwin Appel (the director of the production who also appears as Shylock the usurer) has assembled an impressive cast of accomplished performers from all across the United States, all seventeen of whom are situated in their Zoom rooms for the two hours and forty minutes reading.
If there's a gold prize for snagging one of Broadway's superstars, Patrick Page, to participate in the reading, pin it on Appel.
Page (Emmy Awardee, Tony Nominee and Grammy Award recipient for his role as Hades in Hadestown) brings an authority and intelligence to his performance as Antonio, the merchant imperiled by his obligation to Shylock, that resonates with every smooth utterance of his low bass voice.
Appel is in his own right an accomplished Shakespearean. The Professor of Theater and Chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at University of California Santa Barbara brings a distinguished background to the enterprise ~ as a versatile actor, founding artistic director of Naked Shakes, and the award-winning producer and director of The Death of Kings.
As celebrated as the gathering of such talents is, the production is, after all, a reading, to be differentiated in its particular attributes from a staged performance. This is not to be regarded as a criticism but it is rather an understanding of the limits of a critical review that might otherwise be applied to a staged performance.
The actors as readers sit in their rooms, a separation necessitated by forces beyond their control. They have been limited to one rehearsal the day before and, for the sake of time, lines have been cut. They are denied the dynamics of direct and physical interaction, the ability to eyeball each other, feel each other's presence, experience the chemistry that would infuse their performances with palpable energy. Each is left to their own interpretation of the lines. Some emote and wax eloquent; others are more subdued. All, however, have charged into the play with full commitment, conviction and vigor. If the nuances of character development and interpretation are denied, that's not the fault of direction but more of the inherent limitations of cyber-separation.
This is the reality of virtual, the technical limitations of Zoom and similar communications portals.
And yet, having offered these caveats, there is a resounding benefit to the reading. It is that we may instead concentrate on and really hear Shakespeare's words, discern his meanings, and wrestle with the play's ambiguities ~ unencumbered by the distractions of stage sets, sound, and lighting. If there's evidence to this effect, the proof is in the thirty-minute discussion among the actors following the reading. It is an intelligent, brilliant and stimulating exchange of ideas and interpretations of the work and the playwright's intentions.
Notwithstanding the above observations, I have now watched this virtual performance of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE twice! And, I have found it inspired, informative, and, as usual, provocative. And I can wholeheartedly recommend it as a worthwhile opportunity to delve into one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays.
To wit, is MERCHANT a play about anti-Semitism or is it an anti-Semitic play? What are we to feel for Shylock ~ sympathy or disdain? Is it a commentary on fidelity and the excesses of a mercantile culture? No doubt, MERCHANT, is in any case, a play with multi-layered themes that speak, among other topics, to privilege, bigotry, power, and justice ~ all themes that suggest relevance to issues of current times.
There are notable moments during the reading when it feels like the actors have crossed the divide between the Zoom rooms and seized the emotional moment.
There is Patrick Page's intense sense of sadness and desperation as he bears the burden of a debt unfulfilled and an affection necessarily suppressed for his kinsman, Bassanio (Zach Appelman).
There are the heady and wistful exchanges between Portia (Tracie Lane) and her lady-in-waiting Nerissa (Alison Campbell) about potential suitors.
There's the endearing exchange between Portia and Bassanio as he vies to unlock the door to her heart.
Then, too, the playful ruse at play's end when Portia and Nerissa catch Bassanio and Gratiano (Cameron Knight, a consistently balanced and attractive presence throughout the reading) in their failed deception.
There is Appel's painful rendering of Shylock's classic speech (Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?) and his confusion and torment at the climactic trial.
And, finally, of course, there is the trial in which Tracie Lane's Portia, disguised as Balthazar the attorney, forcefully and mercilessly challenges Shylock's claims and frames the terms of justice.
For all their commitment and devotion to a vital and virtual reading of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, I offer a hearty round of applause to Southwest Shakespeare Company and the full cast:
Salarino ~ Dathan B. Williams
Solanio ~ Kyle Sorell
Bassanio ~ Zach Appelman
Lorenzo ~ Walter Kmiec
Gratiano ~ Cameron Knight
Portia ~ Tracie Lane
Nerissa ~ Alison Campbell
Shylock ~ Irwin Appel
Prince of Morocco ~ Debra Ann Byrd (Founder/AD and AAD of Harlem Shakespeare Festival)
Launcelot Gobbo ~ John Way
Old Gobbo ~ Greg Whiteley (creator of Cheer and Last Chance U)
Leonardo ~ Cooper Bruhns
Jessica ~ Tadja Enos
Prince of Arragon ~ Jeff Mills
Tubal ~ David Ira Goldstein (also, Assistant Director)
Stephania ~ Sierra Hastings
Duke of Venice ~ Beau Heckman (also, Stage Directions)
Poster credit to Southwest Shakespeare Company
Southwest Shakespeare Company ~ https://swshakespeare.org/ ~ 55 E Main St, Mesa, AZ ~ 480-435-6868