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OSF Tries to Sell Us on “Merchant of Venice”

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most controversial classics. Traditionally considered a comedy, the play employs several of Shakespeare’s favorite tricks, including women disguising themselves as men and witty servants conspiring behind their masters’ backs. However, most modern audiences focus on the serious racial themes stirred by the conflict between Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, against the Christians friends of Antonio, the Merchant of Venice.

HE SAID: Amongst other things, Shakespeare is very difficult to perform because you have to make the audience understand the Elizabethan language while making it seem completely natural. To me, the most frustrating Shakespeare productions are when the actors are so focused on having perfect diction or hitting the right emphasis according to the meter that they never really develop/convey a character with real intentions and emotions. OSF’s production was hit-or-miss for me in terms of balancing the need to be clear yet human and be relevent yet honest.

SHE SAID: This show, like nearly everything I’ve seen at the Elizabethan Stage in Ashland, was well-done and enjoyable. I agree that parts of it were a bit muddled, and enjoyed mixed success. I very much enjoyed how aware I was that the play was set in Venice, with a gondola cruising across the stage at one point, and several pieces of luggage being thrown into the canals (complete with sound effects for the splash).

HE SAID: Mark Bedard as Launcelot was a great example of a successful comedic performance that was based in the text. He played with the text and built on the foundation of his character to create genuine humor. Armando Duran as The Prince of Arragon, Portia’s second suitor, was an example of attempted humor that was just added on top of (and between) the lines in the script. He was jumping around to music that was played between the lines, and even had to add a “hmmmm” to several lines to create a bit that wasn’t supported in the text at all. It all felt like forced bits of comedy which can be amusing but it’s something I call “funny for the wrong reasons”.

SHE SAID: I see what you mean, but since he was the second suitor to try for Portia’s hand, I thought he didn’t detract much from the story, because no new information was presented. My favorite performance was actually Vilma Silva as Portia. She dealt with the language impeccably all while being extremely human and relatable. Dawn-Lyen Gardner, who played her maid Nerissa, had the right energy for the role, but didn’t handle the language quite as expertly as Silva. Although she proved herself as an incredible actor the previous night in Ruined (see our review here), she wasn’t quite up to the level of the other performers on the Elizabethan Stage.

HE SAID: Anthony Heald as Shylock was convincing as he portrayed a man angered and wronged by his society, but I would have liked to see him be a bit more emotioanlly dynamic throughout the play. Danforth Comins was a charming and sincere Bassanio, and he displayed true professionalism when it suddenly began to rain (in this outdoor amphitheatre) during a scene of his in the third act. Although the audience began to moan and titter with laughter, he stayed entirely focused and delivered the same performance he would have given on a clear, dry evening.

SHE SAID: The scenic and costume design choices were a bit confusing to me. The director (Bill Rauch)’s note in the program implies that he waned to “blend” the Renaissance and modern periods, but this seemed more like a haphazard mix. The courtroom had period benches and tables with modern microphones, Nerissa wore an an old-fashioned clerk’s uniform but carried a laptop, and Bassanio wore blue jeans with his doublet. I kept searching for a pattern in the assignments, that class, or race or personality determined which characters were more modern than others, but I found no organizing principle.

THEY SAID: If you’re looking for a well-produced piece of Shakespeare, you can look no further than the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Particularly in this outdoor space, with some of the most experienced Shakespearean actors in the nation, you will enjoy your visit to an ancient world. This production had a few puzzling artistic and acting choices, but it is ultimately a strong and enjoyable representation of one of Shakespeare’s most controversial comedies.



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