Noah J Nelson on Monday, Jun. 18th
Few things warm the heart of a theatre nerd than a good production of Shakespeare. All the better when it sports a modern twist that doesn’t feel tacked on or forced. Director Tiger Reel and actor Jack Young’s brisk adaptation of The Merchant of Venice jumps in with both feet and whisks the audience along through the story in ninety minutes that feel like a half hour.
Let’s start with Young’s absolutely stand-out Shylock. Young does not tiptoe around the part’s darker aspects, nor does the adaptation flinch when it comes to pulling the ugliness of the play’s milieu to center stage. Instead actor and production alike embrace the contradictory nature of Shylock’s role: his position in the story is that of a melodramatic villain, but as a villain drawn with great empathy. We’re not invited to pity or revile Shylock in this production so much as to understand his rage. Young and Reel’s collaboration around one of the most difficult characters in the canon would be cause enough to see this production alone, but there is so much more.
The ensemble is top notch, with nearly all of the players getting stand-out turns at one point or another. An emotionally homoerotic subtext to Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship is brought by Jon Weinberg and David Hardie–respectively– without even flirting with lascivious parody. When these two guys talk about the love they bear for each other they aren’t being metaphorical. If anything there is a layer of tragedy, as Antonio’s feelings for Bassanio are fated never to be given their full due.
The adaptation casts the Portia (Vanessa Vaughn) and Nerissa (Samantha Klein) suitor interview scenes as a mash-up of The View and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. This works brilliantly, allowing the tone of the play to lighten up from the tense mob-lite vibe that the opening scenes bring and lets the ladies characters warm the audeince up to some of the play’s universal themes about perception. This theme is what the play orbits with clarity and precision– “all that glitters is not gold” indeed.
The already great chemistry between Vaughn and Klein in these scenes is eclipsed for a moment by a show stealing bit by Nikki Jenkins. Her scene as Portia’s would-be husband Arragon channels Kanye West to great comic effect. I almost feel bad in spoiling that moment. It’s that good. Abbie Cobb plays Shylock’s daughter Jessica as a young girl on the razor’s edge, torn between the passion she has for her lover Lorenzo and the love she has for her father. She does more to strike the play’s melancholic notes in a few subtle seconds on stage than some productions are able to muster in a full hour.
Director Reel demonstrates a steady hand with his staging and pacing, and has a Tarantino-like instinct for pulling in pop music top serve as transitions and underscore. Not just the current stuff, either as at one point I caught him using a deep cut from Prince’s Batman album, specifically the track ‘Scandalous’, during a love scene. I didn’t now anyone else still had that album.
This cast. This adaptation. This production. So good. So very, very good. Not to be missed at the Hollywood Fringe this year.
Abbie Cobb • David Hardie • Jack Young • Jon Weinberg • Nikki Jenkins • pop music • Samantha Klein • Shakespeare • Shylock • Speed Merchant (of Venice) • the Merchant of Venice • Tiger Reel • Vanessa Vaughn