Just when you think that Skakespeare’s work is both out of reach of and out of touch with modern audiences, Henley Street offers a take on Shakespeare replete with iPhones, televisions, and even…Lady Gaga???
Performing a Shakespearean play comes with its drawbacks. The text always stays the same, which is lovely and wistful until you get an actor who awkwardly stumbles through his lines, putting emphasis on all the wrong words. Since Shakespeare is already the ultimate workout for your brain, it’s terrible trying to follow along when the actor doesn’t even understand what he’s saying. Thankfully, the cast of Henley Street Theater‘s The Merchant of Venice seemed comfortable with the fast-paced, lavish wordage, and delivered the dialogue with confidence and clarity. Despite reciting 400 year-old prose, they found ways to modernize the show through mannerisms, gestures, and tone, not to mention the appearance of iPhones, a flatscreen TV, and even a little Lady Gaga. Being such a timeless story, however, it worked in the 21st century as well as it would’ve in the 16th.
The biggest liberty taken with this production was casting a woman in the title role. Shakespeare originally penned The Merchant of Venice with a man named Antonio as the wealthy and beneficent merchant. In this production, we are introduced to the powerful Antonia instead. Kimberly Jones Clark portrays Antonia, who gets herself into trouble after she borrows a sum of money from the wealthy Shylock (Jeff Clevenger) and is unable to pay him back. Though Antonia loses her power, the play still packs a girl power punch. Whiz-bang duo Portia (Liz Blake White) and Nerissa (Kerry McGee) are the highlights of the show with their laid-back, modern delivery of Shakespeare’s verse–despite being surrounded by seemingly powerful men, these ladies always find a way to come out on top.
Being a tragic comedy, The Merchant of Venice is not without its heavier moments. Debates about its antisemitic theme and Shakespeare’s intended message have been going on for 400 years now. It’s certainly the biggest point of contention in the play, and Clevenger achieves the perfect balance of good and evil as Shylock the Jew, notably in his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech.
Shakespeare’s enduring storytelling and wit never cease to entertain. Henley Street Theater’s The Merchant of Venice is no exception. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, I recommend you read the super handy little summary in the playbill beforehand to make your life a little easier. Yes, it’s full of ‘spoilers’ but the way it all unfolds in conversation will delight you nonetheless. After all, with Shakespeare it’s all about the words. I mean, they don’t call him the Bard for nothing.
9/22/11 – 10/15/11