27th Season (2015–2016)

The Merchant of Venice

March 18 - April 26, 2009 | Margeson Theater

By William Shakespeare
“The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as”

A mysteriously melancholy rich man, a dashing young lover in need of cash, a moneylender with reasons to seek revenge, and a witty young woman with a knack for disguise. These are the elements of Shakespeare’s sparkling and troubling tragicomedy. This thoughtprovoking mixture of comedy, steely-eyed satire, compassion, poetry, and the perpetual struggle between mercy and justice has intrigued audiences for more than four centuries.

Ensemble

Dramatis Personae
The Islands of Venice
– Antonio, a merchant of Venice: Steven Patterson*
– Solanio, a merchant: Michael Beaman
– Salerio, a merchant: Kyle Crowder
– Gratiano , friend to Bassanio and Antonio: Darren Bridgett*
– Lorenzo, in love with Jessica: Andrew Knight
– Basanio , friend to Antonio, suitor to Portia: Armistead Johnson*
– Leonardo , servant to Bassanio: Nathan Gregory
– Gaoler: Nathan Gregory
– Servant of the Court: Isreal Scott
– Duke of Venice: Bob Dolan*

The Island of Belmont
– Portia , a rich heiress: Marni Penning*
– Nerisa , her waiting-gentlewoman: Anne Hering*
– Rosalind, servant to Portia: Amanda Wansa
– Stephana , servant to Portia: Ingrid A. Marable
– Prince of Morocco, suitor to Portia: Isreal Scott
– Prince of Arragon, suitor to Portia: Nathan Gregory

Ghetto Nuova — A Venetian Island containing the Jewish Ghetto
– Shylock, a rich Jew: Joe Vincent*
– Jessica , daughter to Shylock: Brittney Rentschler
– Tubal, a Jew, friend to Shylock: Bob Lipka
– Launcelot Gobo, servant to Shylock, later Bassanio: Chris Mixon*

Masked Servants and Magnificoes
– Bob Dolan*, Andrew Knight, Bob Lipka, Chris Mixon*, Amanda Wansa, Ingrid A. Marable, Brittney Rentschler

Understudies
– Gratiano/Priest/”Silver” Servant/Duke of Venice/Solanio: Brendan Rogers
– Bassanio/Bauta Magnificoe/”Lead” Servant/Tubal/Lorenzo/Magnificoe/Salerio/ Leonardo/Gaoler/Prince of Arragon: Brad Roller
– Launcelot Gobbo/”Gold” Servant: Nathan Gregory
– Antonio: Michael Beaman
– Portia/Nerissa: Desiree Bacala,
– Bauta/Prince of Morocco/Officer: Kyle Crowder
– Jessica: Brit Cooper, Rosalind
– Magnificoe/Stephana: Brook Haney

Production Team
– Director: Jim Helsinger
– Assistant Director: Andy Felt
– Scenic Design: Bob Phillips**
– Lighting Design: Bert Scott**
– Costume Design – The Merchant of Venice: Denise R. Warner
– Sound Design: Bruce Bowes
– Original Musi: Amanda Wansa
– Text and Vocal Coach: Eric Zivot
– Assistant to Text and Vocal Coach Mary Kate Dwyer
– Music Coach: Amanda Wansa
– Stage Manager: Amy Nicole Davis*
– Assistant Stage Manager: George Hamrah*
– Production Assistants: Emily Harvey, Alyssa Howard, Annastacia Miller & Philip Richard II
– Sound Board Operator: Lillian Huzway
– Light Board Operator: Mary Heffernan
– Wardrobe: Phillip Giggey & Brittany Kugler
– Additional Costume Shop Staff: Chantry Banks, Monica Gibson, Corey Schreck & Debbie Warner

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Production Sponsors

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Critic and Audience Reviews

Wherever it goes, it seems, The Merchant of Venice creates tumult.

A school board in Ontario bans the play. A production in Tel Aviv causes a commotion. But whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic in The Merchant of Venice is only one of the troubling aspects of the play, which moves from romantic comedy one moment to tragedy the next. You may be stymied trying to categorize what may be the most puzzling of all Shakespeare’s works. In Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s production, you’ll also know you’ve seen something profound.

No doubt, Shylock is one of the most reviled creatures in all literature — a Jewish moneylender more taken with his ducats than his daughter, driven to extract from the merchant Antonio his “pound of flesh” to pay a debt.

Of course, anti-Semitism was rampant throughout Europe in Shakespeare’s day, so The Merchant of Venice is a product of the times. And maybe, as many modern interpreters think, Shakespeare was both playing to his audiences and creating a more nuanced, disturbing view of a vilified man.

That’s the vision behind director Jim Helsinger’s vivid production, which sets up the dichotomy between Christian and Jew in its first moments and returns to it wrenchingly at the last. Helsinger doesn’t shrink from the sunniness of Merchant’s romantic comedy — the comical pursuit of wealthy young Portia by fortune-hunters far and wide, the sweet-tempered love story between her and the smitten Bassanio. But what shakes you in this production is the play’s pure nastiness — the slurs heaped upon Shylock, the hatred with which he fights back.

It’s more shocking still to realize that the same characters who respond to one another so lovingly (and who look so gorgeous in designer Denise Warner’s silks and velvets) can see Shylock as something less than human. Antonio, so loyal to Bassanio, spits on Shylock; Portia speaks famously of “the quality of mercy” but is merciful only when it’s convenient.

Marni Penning brings the same down-to-earth spirit to Portia that she does to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing: Her Portia may be self-pitying, but she’s also smart, and she leaps to action more quickly than any man. Armistead Johnson is a stalwart Bassanio, and Steven Patterson’s forceful Antonio hints at sorrows within.

Most affectingly, Joe Vincent plays off the hateful and hated in Shylock: There is almost nothing admirable about this man, but everything about him is human. Vincent never draws back from contradiction. And his penultimate moments, when he gives up his tallis and his yarmulke, are heartbreaking in the extreme.

There are lots more fine performances — especially Chris Mixon as a hilarious Launcelot Gobbo, a slightly smarter cousin to his Dogberry in Much Ado.

But what stays with you is not the silly or sweet but rather the challenging. There’s an underlying uneasiness in Orlando Shakespeare’s production, a part that nags at you long after the play has ended. If theater exists to throw you off balance, this company is doing its job.

Orlando Shakespeare Theater director Jim Helsinger has been tasked to act as a virtual stitching master for the company’s production of The Merchant of Venice, a work he describes in the program as a “tapestry” of “comedy, tragedy, religious and racial intolerance, and romance.” Tapestry is a kind term for a play whose hodgepodge construction more resembles a Bollywood film extravaganza than a thematically congruent dramatic narrative.

For by turns Merchant is a serious work about the nature of anti-Semitism, a silly roundelay of lovers’ quarrels and childish intrigues, a sober exploration of the subjects of justice and mercy, and a cartoonish fairy tale peopled with comic caricatures and fantastic plot contrivances. That Helsinger mostly manages to overcome the daunting challenge of knitting these disparate designs into anything resembling a coherent evening of theater is a testament to his skill. It’s also a testament to his cast’s proficiency in hemming together the play’s mismatched swatches and embroidering over some holes in the tale’s fabric.

Key to the evening’s success is the powerful performance of Joe Vincent as Shylock, the rich Jew of Venice whose hatred of those who have maligned him and his “tribe” for generations is as deeply rooted and malignant as theirs is of him. Highlighting his separateness from the Christian community in which he must toil and survive as an eternal outsider, Vincent sports a slight Eastern European accent; his faint Yiddishkeit is in sharp contrast to the clipped and proper English of the rest of the ensemble.

While Vincent must labor under the story’s heavy weave, Marni Penning (as Portia, a rich heiress who later doubles as the young lawyer who confronts the vengeful Shylock in court), is free to sport more diaphanous garments. Beautiful, giddy and love-struck, her character charms and connives, giving Merchant most of its lighthearted and enjoyable moments.

Armistead Johnson is personable and sympathetic as Bassanio, the play’s third most important personage, as he attempts to maneuver gracefully between his friendship with Steven Patterson’s Antonio (the merchant of the title) and his romance with Portia, but is a bit too earnest in his portrayal. This agreeable young performer needs to modulate his temperament and learn to employ the subtler weapons in his actor’s arsenal.

While The Merchant of Venice is a tricky work because of its complex threads, the Shakes has tailored it to as good a fit as can be expected.

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