The Winter’s Tale

The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Jon Barker, Erin Partin, and John Keabler; photo: Jerry Dalia

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey offers a powerful new production of The Winter’s Tale, a play that mixes darkness and light, the tragic and the playful. Directed by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, it premiered December 8 and runs through December 30.

A cast of 20 is called upon to present Shakespeare’s story of how jealousy can overcome loyalty, friendship, judgment, how destructive it is to stick stubbornly to a belief despite all evidence to the contrary, and how, in the long run, the only redemption may be through love. Director Monte says this complex play is “part allegory, part searing drama, part pastoral comedy and part uplifting and moving romance.”

Leontes, King of Sicilia (played by Jon Barker), and his pregnant wife, Hermione (Erin Partin), are entertaining Leontes’s longtime friend from Bohemia, Polixines (John Keabler), when Leontes gets it in his head like a worm in an apple that Hermione and Polixines are more to each other than they ought to be. Learning the king means to do him harm, Polixines and Leontes’s courtier Camillo (Patrick Toon) flee Sicily, which only confirms Leontes of the couple’s guilt.

Leontes imprisons his distraught wife, who gives birth to a daughter that the wise woman Paulina (Marion Adler) begs him to see and claim, but he will not. He insists that his general Antigonus (Raphael Nash Thompson) take the baby away and leave it in some desolate place that it survive or die as the fates decree. Reluctantly, Antigonus complies.

Leontes puts his wife on trial, a proceeding interrupted by a message from the oracle of Apollo, who declares Hermione’s innocence. The message also says his son will die and Leontes will have no heir until he is reunited with his lost daughter. The death of the boy convinces him of the oracle’s truth, but the death of her son is too much for Hermione, and she too is struck dead.

Antigonus leaves the babe in a Bohemian wood and, in theater’s most famous stage direction, “exits, chased by a bear.” The infant is discovered by kindly shepherds.

Sixteen years pass, the character Time tells us, and the beautiful girl-child Perdita (Courtney McGowan) has fallen in love with Florizel (Ryan Woods), son of Polixines, though she does not know he’s a prince. The play moves into broad comedy with the country folk, but eventually the plan is made to go to Sicily, where sadness still reigns.There, everyone reunites and theater magic happens, and what was dark is made light again.

The entire cast is strong, with special mention needed for Jon Barker, who can convey every drop of meaning in Shakespeare’s lines through his delivery and unerring body language. Erin Partin and Marion Adler (who received applause for one particularly fiery speech) were also noteworthy. Seamus Mulcahy (Charley’s Aunt in the theater’s most recent production) shows his genius for physical comedy in the secondary role of shepherd. Raphael Nash Thompson and Patrick Toon provided restrained dignity in contrast to Barker’s erraticism.

A simple set is needed to accommodate two countries and numerous scenes, and Brittany Vasta has produced gorgeous, chilly white backgrounds that radiate winter and allow the beautiful costumes of Nikki Delhomme to provide the color. Other production credits to Tony Galaska (lighting), Danielle Liccardo (dance consultant), and Denise Cardarelli (production stage manager).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable rom NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Charley’s Aunt

Charley's Aunt

Seamus Mulcahy as “Charley’s Aunt” in an unguarded moment; photo, Jerry Dalia

Charley’s Aunt, the 1892 farce that ran almost 1,500 performances in London’s West End is remounted by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in a sparkling, fast-paced production directed by Joseph Discher that opened October 27 and runs through November 18.

As the play opens, St. Olde’s College student Jack Chesney (played by Aaron McDaniel) is in his campus rooms, fretting over the draft of a letter to a young lady. He can’t get the news of his attachment quite right, and her family is decamping to Scotland on the morrow. He’s soon joined by his pal Charles Wykeham (Isaac Hickox-Young), suffering similar writer’s block over his letter to another young lady in the soon-to-depart group.

Charley, an orphan, is further flustered by information that his wealthy aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez will be arriving mid-day to meet him. Though she’s paid for his education from her home in far-off Brazil (“where the nuts come from”), they’ve never met. Jack soon concocts a plan to invite their lady-loves to luncheon in his rooms to meet Charley’s aunt, who can provide a suitable chaperonage. But how to get rid of her when they want privacy? Jack hits on the stratagem of adding their amusing friend Lord Fancourt Babberly—“Babbs” (Seamus Mulcahy) to the party. He can entertain the old lady, surely.

Babbs arrives and mentions he’s taken up amateur theatricals and is about to play an elderly lady in some production. (At this point, the direction of the plot is clear, which doesn’t subtract a bit from the enjoyment!) The costume is produced, Babbs dons it, and almost simultaneous with the arrival of the young ladies is a note saying Donna Lucia’s plans have changed and she cannot arrive for several days.

Poor Babbs is finagled into pretending to be the aunt and the fun is in full sway. More people join the luncheon party—Jack’s father, Colonel Sir Frances Chesney (David Andrew MacDonald) and the father and guardian of the young ladies, Stephen Spettigue (John Ahlin), both of whom have an eye on the fetching (and wealthy) Donna Lucia.

Although the story starts a bit slowly, once the plot gets rolling, there’s no stopping it. When Charley’s aunt—the real Donna Lucia (Erika Rolfsrud)—arrives after all, sizes up the situation, and keeps her true identity secret in order to torment poor Babbs, the catastrophes multiply.

The cast has a great deal of fun with the physical comedy and sight gags, including the three delightful ingenues: Emiley Kiser, Erica Knight, and Sally Kingsford. By maintaining his dignity regardless of the outrages he witnesses, Peter Simon Hilton’s Butler is a perfect comic foil.

Ultimately, the real success of the production rests on the shoulders of Seamus Mulcahy. His Babbs—mugging, fleeing, angry, amorous—is a treat from beginning to end and well earned the enthusiastic standing ovation he and the cast received.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Blithe Spirit

Blithe Spirit

Brent Harris, Kate MacCluggage, Tina Stafford; photo: Jerry Dalia

Conceived during London’s 1941 Blitz and brought to the page in a six-day writing frenzy, Noël Coward’s quirky comedy Blithe Spirit was meant to counteract the gloom overtaking the country as battlefield deaths mounted and national collapse seemed possible. It became one of the West End’s longest running non-musical productions, with almost 2,000 performances.

The version currently at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on stage through September 2, once again proves this work’s lasting ability to appeal. With spirited direction by Victoria Mack, it moves along briskly, retaining Coward’s farcical elements, though for me, at least, condensing some of that would be appreciated. A bit of business funny the first time isn’t as amusing on the fourth or fifth go.

Still, the author’s ability to craft a witty epigram that seems perfectly apt seventy years later is firmly intact. My favorite, out of the mouth of Charles Condomine: “It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”

Charles, the husband of the story (played by Brent Harris), lives apparently quite happily with his wife Ruth (Kate MacCluggage) in elegant, upperclass English drawing-room style. With unreliable assistance from their well-intentioned maid Edith (Bethany Kay), they put on a dinner party for friends.

The party entertainment will be a séance conducted by a local spiritualist, Madame Arcati (Tina Stafford). What seemed a harmless bit of fun unexpectedly conjures the ghost of Charles’s first wife Elvira (Susan Maris), whom only Charles can see and hear. She interacts with him, though for everyone else, his reactions to her are inexplicable (too many martinis?). He tries to pass them off as a joke.

Intent on disrupting Charles’s current marriage by one means or another, Elvira is a devious and unsympathetic character. Coward thus avoided evoking the sadness that might have accompanied a play so concerned with the death of a young person. (Note that the play ends slightly differently than the movie version, in which Rex Harrison played Charles.)

Harris, who was brilliant in STNJ’s production of Tartuffe earlier this season, shines again, and MacCluggage, as Ruth, extracts every bit of nuance from her character. Stafford and Kay both have the opportunity for broad physical comedy and make the most of it, delightfully. Somehow, the character of Elvira didn’t work for me; she was so slinky and manipulative, it was hard to understand Charles’s attraction, in either her corporeal or spiritual form.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus

Robberson, Cuccioli, & Cromer; photo: Jerry Dahlia

“A society drowning in violence and seemingly bereft of civil thought or action” is how the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey describes the setting for Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, now in a riveting new production, directed by Brian B. Crowe, through August 5. First performed January 24, 1594, it was one of the revenge dramas so popular among Elizabethan audiences and fans of the Death Wish franchise. Here, the desire for revenge trumps every other human feeling, with no possibility of compromise or negotiation.

It’s well worth seeing, not just because the opportunity comes about so rarely and not just because of Shakespeare’s thought-provoking content, but also because of the high quality of this production. The acting and production values are top-notch.

The title character (played by Bruce Cromer) returns to Rome a hero after his conquest of the Goths. His chained prisoners comprise their sultry queen Tamora (Vanessa Morosco), her three sons, and her advisor, a moor (Chris White). When Titus arrives, Roman brothers Saturninus (Benjamin Eakeley) and Bassianus (Oliver Archibald) are vying to replace their late father, the emperor. Given the opportunity to choose between them, Titus chooses Saturninus, who proceeds to claim his brother’s betrothed, Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Fiona Robberson). Skirmishes break out, but Lavinia and Bassianus flee.

Two of Titus’s sons were killed in the war, and the remaining sons demand the sacrifice of the Goth queen Tamora’s eldest son, despite her desperate pleas. Though she speaks honeyed words to Saturninus, her desire for revenge against Titus and all his children is clear.

The moor connives with Tamora’s remaining sons (Torsten Johnson and Quentin McCuiston) to kill Lavinia’s new husband, ravish her, and, so that she can’t reveal their identity, cut off her hands and cut out her tongue. Titus has lost five sons in the play so far, and his last son Lucius (Clark Scott Carmichael) is banished. He is devastated to see the wreck of his daughter. Only the counsel and forbearance of his brother Marcus (Robert Cuccioli) saves him from total madness.

Near the end of the play is a speech by Marcus that for me was the most relevant to politics in our own time: “O! let me teach you how to knit again this scatter’d corn into one united sheaf, these broken limbs again into one body; lest Rome herself be bane unto herself, and she whom mighty kingdoms curtsy to, like a forlorn and desperate castaway, do shameful execution on herself.”

Fine performances of Cromer as Titus, Cuccioni as Marcus, Morosco as Tamora, and her two reptilian sons (Johnson and McCuiston) were excellent. For me, though, the most moving performance came from Robberson, the handless, tongueless, young widow. And White delivers the moor with relish.

It’s fun seeing such a luxuriously large principal cast—16 actors—ably augmented by 11 members of the theater’s 2018 Summer Professional Training Program in multiple roles.

Dick Block created a memorable set, featuring giant swords and an enormous warrior’s helmet, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Tartuffe

Tartuffe

photo: JerryDalia

A theatrical work maintains its ability to delight audiences for more than 350 years for one reason: continued relevance. Such is the case with Molière’s comic masterpiece Tartuffe, on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. This sparkling production, directed by STNJ’s artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte, opened May 19 and runs through June 10.

In 1664, Tartuffe so scandalized the powers-that-be with its take-down of religious hypocrisy and false piety that the right wing clergy banned it. After a few text changes and with French King Louis XIV’s strong support, the ban was lifted five years later. In the current era, with #MeToo, families rent by political divisions, and the difference between truth and lies increasingly contentious, Tartuffe hits home once again.

A 2018 audience responds with fresh outrage to a situation in which a woman is threatened with rape, but the man accusing her attacker is disbelieved—“Now you know what it’s like not to be believed,” says a female character. Today’s audience likewise has a robust appreciation for the wiles of con man and dissembler Tartuffe (played by Brent Harris), his credulous and all-too-willing victim, Orgon (Patrick Toon), and the frustrated household members who cannot convince him of the deception.

That household includes Orgon’s wife Elmire (Caroline Kinsolving), daughter (Sarah Nicole Deaver), son (Aaron McDaniel), Elmire’s brother (William Sturdivant), and the saucy maid Dorine (Victoria Mack). Only Orgon and his mother (Vivian Reed) side with Tartuffe against the family.

Orgon took the pious Tartuffe in when he was a beggar, installed him in his home, and moves him closer and closer to the center of family life. His next plan is to rescind permission for his daughter to marry her love and instead wed her to the odious Tartuffe. Several scenes take place in which Tartuffe’s unwelcome intrusions are thoroughly discussed before we see the man himself. When he does appear, Brent Harris does not disappoint. He is so-o-o-oo smarmy, wearing a long white-blonde wig as pallid as his pieties.

The entire cast is strong, especially Toon and Kinsolving, the delectable Deaver (she has a great scene with her fiancé, played by Mark Hawkins), and Mack and McDaniel’s lively physical comedy. Reed lends an unexpected, preacherly African-American cadence that works admirably with the verse. (The translation is by Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate, the late Richard Wilbur).While some of the speeches tend to be long, the production is so full of movement and wit that it never flags.

Brittany Vasta’s elegant set is perfect for quick entrances, dramatic exits, and closet-hiding, and the mouth-watering costumes are by Nikki Delhomme.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

It’s a Wonderful Life

It's A Wonderful Life

John Keabler & Elizabeth Colwell. Photo: Jerry Dalia

For many Americans, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a repeat viewing of the Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. You can also see this heart-warmer, on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Opening night was December 9, and the production directed by Doug West, will be playing through December 31.

In Joe Landry’s 1997 adaptation presented here, the story is staged as a live 1940s radio play, and the audience is, well, the studio audience. (In real life, the film was adapted for radio several times.) This stage version offers the opportunity for cast members to interact, not just as the radio-play’s characters, but also as actors in a radio studio. Other delightful touches include the “Applause” light that flashes above the stage manager’s glass booth, the advertisements for hair tonic and soap presented Andrews Sisters style, the presence on stage of the sound effects man (foley artist Warren Pace), whose activities are endlessly entertaining (and effective!), and the live piano playing of cast members, especially Russell Sperberg, who plays hero George Bailey’s younger brother and wrote original music for the production.

Lest you fear all this peripheral activity detracts from the story of George Bailey’s (played by John Keabler) discovery of the importance of his life, it does not. The actors, placed mostly in front of standing mikes, create believable relationships, and the one between George and his wife Mary (Susan Maris) is especially strong. Angel Clarence Oddbody (Andy Paterson) watches over the unfolding story, just as expected. All secondary actors play multiple parts, with vocal changes that, if you closed your eyes, would work perfectly for radio.

There’s one set (the studio) and one basic costume, embellished with hats and vests and aprons to distinguish among the characters. These quick-change artists include John Ahlin (who plays evil Mr. Potter and others), Elizabeth Colwell (Violet, as well as George’s daughter Zuzu), Leavell Javon Johnson (the announcer, Horace, and others), James Michael Reilly (Billy Bailey and others), the aforementioned Russell Sperberg (Harry Bailey and others), and Tina Stafford (George’s mother and others). All the acting is totally up to this fast-paced production. My only reservation is that Keabler’s portrayal of George relies less on his own individual characterization and a bit too much on Jimmy Stewart’s, while I suspect Keabler is well capable of developing George in his own way.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Shakespeare in Love

Perhaps you remember remember the charming 1998 movie, Shakespeare in Love, starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow. Lee Hall—best known for Billy Elliott—has transformed Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay into a theatrical version, on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through November 12. STNJ’s artistic director Bonnie J. Monte directed this lively production, which she describes as “a perfectly ebullient homage to Shakespeare, to life, to love, to the art of theatre, to the centuries of players who inhabit our stages, and to the process of creating art . . . a delight from beginning to end.”

Will Shakespeare (played by Jon Barker) is having trouble finding the right words for a sonnet, and is helped by his friend, fellow playwright, and competitor Kit Marlowe (Anthony Marble). Will encounters the enchanting young Viola de Lesseps (Whitney Maris Brown) and Marlowe again feeds him the words he needs to entrance her.

Viola, on the cusp of marriage, is smitten with the stage and, disguised as a man, tries out for Shakespeare’s new barely-begun play, and is tapped for the part of Romeo. With Viola as his muse, the Bard’s writing takes off. It being forbidden for women to appear on stage at the time, the lovers are in risky territory, not least because Viola’s fiancé (Marcus Dean Fuller) believes Something is Up.

The perils of casting, the comedic antics of rehearsals, the wiles of Viola’s nurse (Erika Rolfsrud), and the parallels between the evolving play and obstacles to the lovers keep the action moving in about a dozen directions at once. A fine—and large—supporting cast, especially noting Ames Adamson, Edmond Genest, Garrett Lawson, and David Andrew Macdonald, plays about forty roles! Spot, (Boston Terrier Dublin Delancy McFinnigan) makes his bone-afide theatrical debut, well trained by Seamus Mulcahy (playing John Webster). (Mulcahy has produced a DVD of dogs performing Shakespeare. A niche product in so many ways.)

Jon Barker and Whitney Maris Brown generate considerable heat in their lovely scenes together. Barker is a frequent STNJ cast member and has a gift for achieving perfect body language and gestures in any role, including this one.

Mention should be made of the energetic and entertaining way the cast pitches in with the set dressing for the numerous scene changes. Brian Clinnin’s deceptively simple-looking scenic design lends itself to transformations from lowly tavern to royal theater box to boat on the Thames.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Austin Blunk, Courtney McGowan, & Vanessa Morosco; photo: Jerry Dalia

This staple of outdoor summer stages—Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play—is on view in a delightful production from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 30. STNJ’s annual outdoor productions are performed in the beautiful Greek amphitheatre of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Florham Park, N.J. (take cushions).

STNJ artistic director Bonnie Monte directed the production, and she must have had a very precise idea in mind, because she served as the set and costume designer as well, inspired perhaps by Shakespeare’s own words in the play:

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream,
past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream - 2

Felix Mayes; photo: Jerry Dalia

The sets on the outdoor stage are always fairly simple, but the costumes were knock-your-socks off. Creative recycling was the theme, with iridescent CD’s forming a glittering backdrop for both the forest outside Athens—the fairy world—and a scaly cape for fairy queen Titania. Puck was gleefully porcupinish with headgear and epaulets sprouting colorful chopsticks? pens? A bathtub was filled with wine corks. More than thirty individuals and families received recognition in the program for aid in collecting the hundreds of “items of refuse” that went into the production. This made sense, actually, fairies being notorious pilferers.

We went to a matinee where numerous children were in the audience—an outdoor theater is one venue where sitting still and silent in your seat is not an absolute requirement, particularly for a comedy. Some of the complicated plot—the two sets of characters, the two sets of lovers, the play-within-a-play—may have been difficult for the youngest audience members to follow precisely, but there was such effective physical comedy and so many hilarious touches, like the performance of Ian Hersey as the ass, Bottom, they stuck with it happily.

The cast had many suitably antic performances, including the aforementioned Hersey and Felix Mayes as Puck, Courtney McGowen as Lion, Vanessa Morosco as Titania, and all of the fancifully costumed fairies.

STNJ produces an excellent KnowTheShow guide. Call box office for tickets (973-408-5600) or email: BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org

The Bungler

The Bungler, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Kevin Isola & James Michael Reilly; photo by Jerry Dalia

Molière’s classic, but infrequently produced comedy about a lovelorn swain and his wily servant premiered July 8 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and is on stage through July 30. The theater’s promotion promises that “if laughter is good medicine, then this show will cure all ills,” and the production directed by Brian B. Crowe leaves the audience well-healed.

Adhering to the strict requirements and principles of French Neoclassicism, Molière’s first full-length play has a single plot that takes place in one setting, in a compressed time span. His characters reflect the conventions of their class (the principle of decorum) and their actions and attitudes are real, probable, and (mostly) believable (the principle of verisimilitude). Molière stretches those rigid rules, established by the redoubtable Cardinal Richelieu, as much as he can through the introduction of elements of Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Many of The Bungler’s characters typify that tradition.

In Messina, Sicily, the young Lélie (played by Aaron McDaniel) falls for a servant, a ravishing gypsy girl (Sophia Blum). Upper-class, but without financial prospects, he must contrive a way to free her from her curmudgeonly master (Eric Hoffman). Alas, Lélie is not very bright, and relies on his valet Mascarille (a classic harlequin, played by Kevin Isola) to develop some ingenious plan. Complicating the valet’s stratagems are a formidable romantic rival (Sam Ashdown), Lélie’s upstanding father (Drew Dix), a money lender who could help out, wants to, then . . . (James Michael Reilly), and his glamorous daughter (Devin Conway).

All of these fine players (and others) eventually figure in Mascarille’s clever stratagems, none of which are understood by Lélie, who at every turn foils certain victory. Although there is only one plot in the play (as required by Cardinal Richelieu’s rules), Molière finds ever-more imaginative ways to set up and carry out the joke, which left the audience laughing uproariously in both anticipation and execution.

Director Crowe keeps the action moving, thanks to his skilled players’ exquisite timing and aided greatly by the many talents of Isola as Mascarille for both physical comedy and the on-point delivery of a line. McDaniel as Lélie, the perpetually confused yet inexplicably confident suitor, is a picture of bafflement. The set design by Dick Block is like a trip to the candy store, and Paul Canada’s costumes are beyond beautiful.

The Bungler, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Sophia Blum, Kevin Isola, & Aaron McDaniel; photo: Jerry Dalia

The STNJ used a translation of The Bungler by Richard Wilbur, the nation’s second poet laureate. Wilbur has won numerous awards for his translations, as well as his own work. The brilliance of his achievement is evidenced by the fact that, although the dialog

proceeds in couplets throughout, this device never becomes tiresome. Instead, it repeatedly delights with its freshness.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey produces an excellent know-the-show guide for each production. Performances are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

On Stage: The Merchant of Venice

Merchant of Venice

Rachel Towne as Nerissa (left) & Melissa Miller as Portia; photo: Jerry Dalia.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 2017 season with Shakespeare’s dark comedy, The Merchant of Venice, about, as the theater describes it “A money-obsessed, patriarchal, dysfunctional society where wealth bestows power; one in which women cannot determine their own fate, and one marked by religious and racial prejudice.” Hmm. This production, which opened Saturday night, May 20, runs through June 4, and is directed by award-winning actor Robert Cuccioli.

Perhaps this play is not often performed because modern playgoers (and producers) are uncomfortable with its blatant anti-Semitism. Such views persisted in England, of course, through the eras of Dickens, Disraeli, Holocaust denial, and may even be again on the rise. It’s talking about them that’s so uncomfortable. Cuccioli, the cast, and the theater deserve praise for not soft-pedaling the ugliness of racial hatred. Shylock (Andrew Weems) is as intransigent in his demands as his foes expect him to be.

The gist of the story, you may recall, is that prominent Venetian merchant Antonio (Brent Harris), loans his friend Bassanio (John Keabler) money so he can woo the estimable Portia (Melissa Miller). Convinced several of his ships will soon arrive and refill his coffers, Antonio borrows the needed sum from his old adversary, Shylock, and agrees to the whimsical idea that, if he cannot repay the debt, he’ll let the Jew take a pound of his flesh.

When Antonio’s ships are lost, Shylock invokes that clause. Portia, disguised as a learned young judge, argues the case to save Antonio (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath”) , aided by her maidservant Nerissa (Rachel Towne), her pretended law clerk.

That part of the story has all the makings of tragedy, certainly high drama. The comedy comes from the suitors for Portia’s hand, made to choose among caskets of gold, silver, and lead, only one of which holds her portrait and her promise to marry. With great shows of manly confidence, they uniformly guess wrong, until Bassanio . . . you can guess the rest. Portia and Nerissa tease their men mercilessly, but not so frivolously as to form too great a contrast with the blacker heart of the play, the downfall of Shylock.

Weems, Harris, and Miller give especially strong and moving performances. However, the entire cast does an admirable job keeping the action going and creating interesting, compelling characters. They’re believably outraged at Shylock and charmed by Portia and Nerissa. In addition to those named, the cast includes Ademide Akintilo, Amaia Arana, Jeffrey M. Bender (his Prince of Arragon is priceless), Byron Clohessy, Ian Gould, Robert S. Gregory, Jay Leibowitz, Anthony Michael Martinez, Joe Penczak,  and Tug Rice.

Production credits to Brian Ruggaber (excellent set design); Käri B. Bentson (sound), Michael Giannitti (lighting); Candida Nichols (lovely 1900-ish costumes); and Alison Cote (production stage manager).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!