Sunday, November 15, 2009

The play's the thing

The Shakespeare Workshop for the first semester is over, the class culminating in today's trip to Butler University's Lilly Theater for a student performance of The Merchant of Venice, directed by visiting artist in resident Tim Hardy of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.

I thought the performance was just spectacular. I mean, I have been to a lot of student productions before and, well.....I've been to a lot of student productions. Let me just say that Tim Hardy is either a god among directors or the Butler Theater Department has been blessed with some remarkably talented young people, I don't know which. Probably both!

Lilly Hall Theater is just a little, itty-bitty place, a rectangular room with seats set up bleacher-style on either of the long sides. There were four sections comprised of twenty-two seats each, from the looks of it when the lights were on, so it was a very intimate setting.

At the far end was a two-story set piece that represented Shylock's house, complete with a balcony with a circular iron staircase, doors that REALLY WORKED (and if you've seen student productions before or more to the point if you've ever been in one, you know exactly what I mean) and a nice opaque window that featured realistic lamplight behind it. It was very effective. That was the only piece of the set that stayed in place throughout the play.

The rest of the "scenery" was presented in the form of stage props: two café tables and chairs to represent, well, an outdoor café; a desk with an old-fashioned radio and desk accoutrements to represent Portia's desk at Belmont; a table for Portia and Nerissa to sit at in the courtroom, and a very nice throne for the Duke of Venice to seat his royal personage upon.

The three casks - gold, silver and "base lead" - were also well done, which isn't often the case. Sometimes those things can look like Mom's old jewelry box touched up with a little spray paint, but these were quite nice. Believable.

I also really admired the lighting, which surpassed what I would have expected from such a small theater. It was put to very good effect, as was the audio: classical music "playing" on the old-fashioned radios, the sound of the surf on the beach and even a thunderstorm. Well done on both counts.

But it was the acting that was truly surprising. The young man who played Shylock (senior Jeff Irlbeck) was the undisputed star of the show. When he delivered the line "Let him see to his bond," his tone was so full of malice, a tingle went up my spine. He impressed me as a very gifted actor.

Junior Steph Gray, the actress who played the role of Portia, also did a very good job, as did junior Jill Harman, who played Nerissa. The two girls had a very happy chemistry between them, bringing out the BFF side of this mistress-and-maid relationship in a way that was very moving. I liked the way they looked out for one another, plotted with one another and giggled together. They were very cute.

One part of the production that didn't work for me as well was the chemistry between Bassanio (junior Peter Denz) and Portia. Denz took the role of the dashing Venezian lover, the impecunious young man who needed his older friend to float him a loan so that he could woo the fair lady of Belmont, and he was a bit of a disappointment. He was shorter than Portia, for one thing, although the girls in my class whom I spoke to after the play assured me that he was, like, ADORABLE. As an impulsive, swaggering young blade, I always expect Bassanio to be both sexy and way cool. It's hard to be sexy and way cool when you're looking at your lady-love's chin, know what I mean? But he wasn't a bad actor by any means. I thought he brought off his part very well.

The only part that fell flat for me was the ending. Some directors - sorry, Tim - just can't resist the unhappy ending, which...that's not what Shakespeare wrote.

At the end of The Merchant of Venice, the three couples (Jessica and Lorenzo, Nerissa and Gratiano, and Portia and Bassanio) all go off together with Antonio, teasing and laughing and bantering back and forth with each other. It's a very pleasant exeunt. But some directors - sorry again, Tim - have to let Lorenzo (senior Nate Burrsma) go off on his own, while Jessica (played by senior Audrey Bertaux-Skierik)sits and sobs over the letter informing her that she'll receive an inheritance from her father, Shylock, when he dies.

Why with the crying? Is she regretting that she eloped with Lorenzo and became a Christian? Is she sorry she stole her father's jewels and ducats and bought a monkey? Maybe the monkey bit her; I guess that could make you cry. Has Lorenzo taken to leaving open bags of potato chips in the living room and reeking socks on the bedroom floor after only three months of marriage? Although it seems more likely that she'd pinch him while he was sleeping than sit on a bench and sob.

I just don't get it. It really irritates to me and leads to a deflated feeling about the play, a sense of anticlimax. Here we all thought we were all going to be happy, joking around with each other about the men and their rings and those naughty girls, all dressed up like men and winning court cases and all, and maybe everyone piling into their cars and driving over to Denny's for a Grand Slam breakfast, but oh, wait....Who's that over there? Oh, it's Jessica. And she's holding that letter and, like, sobbing. Should we go ask her if she's okay? Where's Lorenzo? Does he know she's upset? Maybe we should all just stay here at Belmont and have cornflakes.

Bad ending. ANNOYING ending. But otherwise, a lovely afternoon in a cozy theater with friends.

No comments: