Monday, May 30, 2011

Sylvia by A.R. Gurney

By Joe Straw 

She hated my cat, Pacino. 

My first wife brought him home as a kitten and we were to baby-cat-sit for the weekend.   I grabbed him and put him up to my face.  “What's your name?” I snarled.  Sensing a potential enemy, he bit my nose, hard.  And then stayed for the rest of his life. 

He was my lucky cat who had a nice fur and rarely purred.  He taught himself to use the toilet. Sometimes he was irritating but mostly he was a good companion to both of us.  He slept with my wife up until her final days with cancer. 

My second wife liked Pacino while we were dating.  She thought he was funny.  Then after we were married she tolerated him and then after children she hated him.  He was too loud, she wanted him fixed, wanted to find him a new home, and lastly wanted me to shoot a documentary of him being very annoying.  The list of demands was excessive.

But, Pacino was getting old.  Close to twenty years old.  At night he was kept in his own room with his own toilet and during the day he slept in his chair under the warmth of the sun.

After work, around Christmas time, she said there was no sound from his room.  When I found Pacino, he had fallen near his water dish and had gotten himself wet.  He was alive and not moving.

I dried him completely and laid him on a nice cushion and wrapped a towel around him.  I scratched the back of his ear.  He said, “Thank you.” (And here I can’t help but to take a long pause.) I told my girls Pacino was dying.  They came in and the three of us said goodbye.

The girls had their Christmas recitals that night so we left Pacino, to do what he had to do.   When we got back he had died.

My wife never said goodbye.

I cried at the end of Sylvia by A.R. Gurney directed by Gary Imhoff at the Edgemar Center for the Arts.  Uncontrollable tears were streaming down my face for many reasons.  This is a funny, heartwarming play, for anyone who cares about the creatures that have given them significant moments in their lives.  Bring tissues for the ending.  Bring lots of tissues.

Briefly, the play is about Greg (Stephen Howard) a middle-aged man who is having a terrible time at work and takes the afternoon off. Wandering mindlessly in the park he finds Sylvia (Tanna Frederick) a mutt who latches on to him like a new chew toy. He thinks they’ve bonded and he takes her home.

The very interesting thing about A. R. Gurney’s play is that Sylvia speaks, or is it a bark that Greg interprets to his own choosing?

“Hey! Hey! Hey!” – Sylvia

That’s Sylvia barking.  (Isn’t she cute?) And when Sylvia speaks, she understands what she is saying but, aside from a few choice words, does she really understand what her new owners/friends are telling her?

“Sylvia” is her given name. It says so on her tags, but she has been abandon and possibly at the right moment in Greg’s life. Greg’s job weighs on him.  His boss has become a terrible burden and he needs Sylvia to get him past this point in his life.

But there’s a problem and it’s his wife Kate (Cathy Arden).  She has suddenly found a new passion in her life now that the kids are off to college.  She is teaching Shakespeare to inner city middle school kids.  And she doesn’t want that mongrel messing up her beautiful life.

“She’s not the most beautiful thing I’ve seen, Greg.” – Kate

When Greg takes a call from his boss in the other room Kate and Sylvia go at it.  Kate threatens Sylvia with the nicer accommodations of the pound.

“If someone doesn’t bail you out, normally within five working days, then they put you to sleep…They do!  They kill you!  It’s a tough world out there lady.- Sylvia

Maybe it’s the combination of Sylvia and Greg applying pressure for Sylvia’s homestead, but somehow Greg convinces Kate to have Sylvia stay a few more days.

Greg:  Let me at least try her, Kate.
Kate:  For how long?
Greg:  A few days.
Sylvia:  Yippee!  Yay!  I sense a change in the weather here.

And yes, dogs do have that sense.

Greg takes Sylvia out to the dog park and runs into Tom (Tom Ayers) who gives him worldly advice about dogs, wives, and maintaining a relationship.

“Always remember that your dog is simply a dog.  Always keep reminding yourself of that fact.  Not a person.  Just a dog.  Force yourself to think it.  Otherwise you can get into deep dog sh*t.” – Tom

Later Greg takes Kate to the airport and there is a discussion about Sylvia.  Kate will not let this dog thing lie and thinks Sylvia is taking over their lives.  Greg tells Kate he will miss her.

Kate:  Oh sure.
Greg:  Really I will.    

Kate enlists her friend from Vassar, Phyllis (Tom Ayers, again) to help her find people who will help her with the Shakespeare program.  But what Kate really wants to do is to enlist a friend to support her side of the battle between her and Greg about Sylvia.  Phyllis believes that men and their pets is an unnatural thing.  But realistically it’s about wives not getting enough, attention. 

Phyllis: I think all men should be Republicans, Kate.  It seems to be good for their prostate.

When Sylvia arrives and starts in on Phyllis’ crotch, Phyllis loses the battle and scurries on home. 

During the course of the play Greg dresses Sylvia up, takes her to the park, gets her spayed, takes care of her and treats her with the care that Kate wishes she got from him.  

Later in the play a decision regarding the marriage is made, offstage.  It comes as a complete shock and it is delivered in a matter of fact tone to Sylvia.  It is a decision that will affect all of their lives. 

Tanna Frederick as Sylvia does a very fine job in a physically demanding role. She takes a more humanistic approach to the characterization of Sylvia while one feels adding a little more dog would be just fine.   Still, she is hilarious and a brilliant actor.

Stephen Howard as Greg was almost perfect.  He has so many things going on in his life and so many problems to grapple.  The demands on his life are too challenging.  One can either accept the problems, and die, or find a short-term solution to the problem without going completely nuts.  On the inside he is boiling with the emotions of having to satisfy a wife, job and to take care of his kids in college.  He needs time with Sylvia to accept life’s demands and to understand the world one conflict at a time.   Howard did a marvelous job keeping his cool and trying to please everyone.

Cathy Arden as Kate did a nice job.  Very likeable and not too demanding but probably could have hit those moments a little harder to get what she wanted.  In this version, gone are the Shakespearian references.  (One is not sure why that happened.) Also, the character seems to be compulsive and aggressive, but in the end she has a huge heart.  This was a delightful performance in many ways. 

Tom Ayers was very funny as Tom and Phyllis.  These were wonderful portrayals of characters that define the individuals that come in and out of our lives.  As Tom he may be just the right person Greg needs at this time, the missing link. Without saying things so outlandish which Greg may interpret as Tom being the missing link.  Ayers in drag was hilarious as Phyllis, even going so far to find a dog hair in her water.  This was a marvelous performance and moments that will be remembered for some time to come.  

Gary Imhoff, the director has done a fine job.  He is subtle in his approach and in the end the play hits all the right emotional marks. Directing, defining the choices, and making them imaginative are always the “thing” to do.  One could say that the director made it simplistic in form. But left out were the extreme levels of pain the characters feels when they are on the verge of loosing a spouse, a job, a way of life, or a dog. But then, would it still be a comedy?  Yes it would.

There was another character in the play that did not appear in this particular performance.  Her/his name Leslie (Tom Ayers, once again) a character that is gender neutral.  One is not sure what happened on this particular night.  Maybe they couldn’t get him/her into the dress fast enough.
One is not really sure why A.R. Gurney’s play pushed so many buttons. There is a really interesting challenge with the actors which involves communications and working with a dog-like character.  They don’t really communicate, they just interpret what the animal is saying and/or the dog is responding to a natural flow to the voice. One of the very interesting things about the play is how uninterested parties take sides in the conflict between Kate and Greg’s life.   And how a dog can play a pivotal role in the success or demise of a marriage.  The three main characters are at a pivotal moment in their lives.  Success or failure depends on how much each is willing to give.  And yes all three must be willing to give, even the dog.

And as Phyllis would ask in her New York accent: “The dawwwg?”  Yes the dog.

The beautiful Set and Lighting Designer is Joel Daavid who has done a magnificent job, beautiful in design and purpose and compliments the actors on stage.

Alexandra Guarnieri, the Producer, has done a marvelous job putting all of this together.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Lavender Love by Odalys Nanin

By Joe Straw

There were moments in Lavender Love that were shocking and maybe they were un-intentional, nevertheless, those moments grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and slammed your face into an imaginary wall of a self awakening.  Who knew theatre could do this? More on this moment later.

Meanwhile, while one is getting impatient for the start of the play, there was a gentleman sitting next to me and I asked him if he liked the idea of a play starting on time.  He mentioned that we were probably the only two people in Los Angeles who preferred that scenario.

“At precisely 8:00 pm The King and I, starring Yul Brynner, began.   Not one second before or one second after.   And this happened every night, and for every performance.” 

Somehow the discussion turned to theatre in New York and the late great director Sidney Lumet.  “I’ve seen Serpico eight times.”  One is not sure how we got off track.  Maybe it was just one of those nights.

Finally, 25 minutes after eight, the play started.

There were actually some very shocking things in this production. There was a slight bit of nudity.  This was not shocking.  There was lesbian and gay love.  This was not shocking. There were wonderful costumes by Costume Designer Christina Washington.   This was also not shocking, but wonderful.  The shocking moments come later.

Macha Theatre/Films and the producer of Garbos Cuban Lover present Lavender Love as part of the City of West Hollywood’s 25th Anniversary.  Lavender Love, a new play by Odalys Nanin directed by Odalys Nanin and Ilmar Taska is pure camp. One might question if it is good camp, bad camp, or send your kids to camp, but we’ll leave that up to those who are eager to go and experience this theatrical camp. 

Lavender love refers to a term use in the 1920’s for people in the movie business, notably actors, who needed to keep their reputations intact.  Marriages were arranged to give the appearance that “those people” were just as normal as you, the general theatre going ticket buying public.  (As if “you” are normal.)

In the 1920’s at the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset Boulevard stood the enormous Garden of Allah Hotel, home to Hollywood’s royalty and this is where our story takes place.  But the story starts in present day West Hollywood and now on that corner is a dilapidated McDonalds, home to all kinds of miscreants looking for a cheap thrill or a cheap burger with tiny onions.  

The play starts with a major crime being committed.  Alas Nin (Lidia Ryan) steals a bag of chicken McNuggets.  The theft of the four-piece chicken McNugget is so dastardly and so swift she is immediately wrestled to the ground by a security guard, Samuel Guardian  (O’Neil Cespedes).  He tells her that he’s called the cops and she’s going to jail when they get there.

She pleads for mercy. She doesn’t have any money and she’s waiting for a “residual check” (Aren’t we all?).  And she has broken up with her girlfriend Evie Raven (Michelle Bernard) who’s Latina and  “farts” all over her, all the time, in places where farts are totally unacceptable and inappropriate.   

She farted! A whole symphony of farts.” – Alas Nin

Sympathizing with her predicament, Samuel tells her to wait out the cops by hiding in the basement. He opens the door and convinces her to crawl into the basement with all the bugs and nasty vermin.  When the cops leave she can come back out.  In the meantime he confiscates the bag of McNuggets.   (Just when you think the crime could not get any worse.)

Meanwhile cut to the 1920’s: Madame Alla Nazimova (Odalys Nanin) and her young lover “Natasha Rambova (Stephanie Ann Saunders) are fondling lesbians in the Garden of Allah and having a grand time entertaining their male counterparts Rudolph Valentino (Kristian Steel) and Paul Ivano (Drew Hinckley) who are also lovers in this dramatic camp.

They are playing some kind of fantasy.  Ivano is in a black thong serving tea and Valentino is dressed like something from the Pan Mythology as he toots on a flute.   Rambova is seducing Nazimova and they are all getting along famously.  And while this is fascinating, it is still not shocking.

(Just a brief background, Nazimova was an incredible actress who studied with Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre, Rambova was a superior fashion designer, Ivano was an astonishing cinematographer, and Valentino is a ledgendary Hollywood icon.  All of these people were well regarded in their craft and they also interacted extensively in their work.)

As Alas Nin feels her way around the nasty basement, something happens, she touches something, rings a bell, and upset the order of things by causing an earthquake.  Somehow or another she travels back in time.  (There was a nice video montage of her actions on stage that is thoroughly enjoyable and unpredictable.)

As Alas Nin comes up through the trap door she finds herself in the 1920’s in the company of Nazimova and Rambova.  And for reasons not entirely clear they only hear her.   In the meantime they manage to get her into the basement and throw the table on the trap door rush upstairs to get the séance stuff.

It’s all pure campy Houdini stuff as the four of them bring the intruder into a visible being. One supposes this is done through séance.

When Valentino and Ivano come down, they are dressed for dinner (tux and tails).  They move the table and let Alas Nin back up into the hotel where they can see her!  When the ladies come down they too finally see her.

Eventually, Alas Nin not only becomes part of the group she is a disrupting force to their entire happy family. Nazimova takes a liking to her and Rambova does not like any of this.

Odalys Nanin, as Madame Alla Nazimova, gives a very nice performance.  She has a nice presence on stage and is comfortable in the roll. One wishes the tango to be hotter and one that leads her into a stronger conflict with the fellow actors on stage.

Lidia Ryan, as Alas Nin, has a “Lucy” quirk about her but without the depth. Her objective not clear leads her into dangerous territories on stage. One feels she has had little rehearsal and didn’t quite get the true picture on this particular night.  The character desires stardom, but is not willing to work toward that objective.

Kristian Steel, as Rudoph Valentino, had some nice moments.  Ultimately his performance was awkward possibly because of his age. (He is very young.)  But the problem with his performance seems to be the interaction with the other actors on stage and the sense of self.  One must say this is a man who is conflicted with his sexual identity.  In this environment, he must behave differently when a total stranger enters his life.  He must vie for the affections of all who come into contact with him.  This is how he did it on screen; this is how he must do it in real life.   When he says, “Valentino believes in many soul mates.” not only must he mean it but his actions on stage must convey that message.  He must discard one soul mate for another, even in the blink of the eye.

Stephanie Ann Saunders as Natasha Rambova was absolutely ravishing!  Caressing and absorbing her moments on stage was very delightful to observe.  She is an amazing actress that knows her craft and the work is very visible on stage.  Her hair, the makeup, etc. fit perfectly with the characterization.   So absorbing in character one finds that a polite kiss on her hand would lead others into uncontrollable, unforgettable moments of pleasure.  Her reactions to others physiognomies were enchanting. This was just a delightful performance.

Drew Hinckley as Paul Ivano had some nice moments but lost is the background of his character. Perhaps this is why his objective was not clear.  Without a clear objective his moments on stage become lost in translation.   Although he is proper in many ways the reality is he is a cinematographer, and must have a vision, must provide a life for things to look right and must find a way for the character to look, act, behave, despite the fact he is a naughty boy.  He must have Valentino at all costs but must be conflicted with this Lavender marriage idea and possibly the thoughts of losing Valentino to Alas Nin.

Michelle Bernard, as Evie Raven, was wonderful in this performance.  It is definitely a delightful character study of a strong poor Latina woman with one nice flimsy dress.  To survive, it was not underneath her to cash her partner’s residual check. She definitely had the audience in stitches on this particular night.

O’Neil Cespedes, as Samuel Guardian, has a lot of potential.  He has a nice stage presence but his words get lost at times. Maybe not having that much confidence in the words or whatever.  Still, there has got to be more to this role than someone who moves the action along.  He has a kind of verbal power, a command of his being, but needs to show the audience that power in action on stage. He is, metaphorically, a genie who puts someone else in the bottle while he lives life freely in disguise as a security guard.  (One note: Smile at curtain call.  It’s not all that bad.)

The alternates in the show are as follows: Ayin Aleph as Madame Alla Nazimova, Christoph Dostal as Rudolph Valentino, Nancy Dobbs as Natasha Rambova and Jill Evyn as Evie Raven. 

Okay now the shocking part.   Odalys Nanin has written a piece that includes video of the Great Japanese Tsunami of 2011.   This is shocking in a couple of ways.  Number one, this event just happened.  The wounds of earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns are still felt and visible.  Borrowing footage of scenes we’ve seen over and over again to represent footage and an oncoming tsunami in California is disheartening.

Number two, it takes away from “camp” for just a moment and spears us into a reality we have not gotten over.   And it also says this is an afterthought to this play, which one believes is older than a couple of months.   Let’s throw in a tsunami, earthquake and time travel to really throw a loop into this play.  One is not sure this works.  But to be fair maybe Nanin wants to give us a wakeup call.  Stop worrying about the things we can’t control and love those we want to love and marry those we want to marry.

There did not seem to be a strong through line in this piece co-directed by Odalys Nanin and Ilmar Taska.  The focus was not precise enough to give us a clear picture of the play’s meaning.   Yes, it’s called Lavender Love but one is not getting the true picture of how Lavender Love affects the participants. What are the delights Nazimova gets from pulling the Lavender strings on the players. How does Lavender Love affect Alas Nin and her relationship with Nazimova? We never get a true picture of how Valentino is affected by marrying Rambova, or how Ivano feels about this betrayal from his friend Nazimova.  There are a lot of ways to go here and also a long way to go to clean up these moments. It’s not an impossible task just a movement to clarity. Still, at the end of the day there were a lot of nice moments in this play.

John Toom did a great job with the Set and Light Design and created The Island of California.  Also, Chris Hume job of Sound and Video was very surprising and excellent.

Lavender Love, the play, was one hour long on this particular night.  Not sure how or why this happened.  Possibly the budget could not demand a play 1 1/2 hour in length.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Temperamentals by Jon Marans

L-R John Tartaglia, Mark Shunock, Patrick Scott Lewis, Erich Bergen,
and Dennis Christopher - Greg Gorman Photography 
by Joe Straw

The Blank Theatre Company is centrally located on Santa Monica Boulevard.  There is easy parking next to Gold’s Gym with only a slight walk one block west of Cole.  The theatre has a very small lobby, a couple of chairs, and a place to get your tickets. 

Never wanting to get to theatre late, one finds a place to sit.  After a brief period the lobby starts filling up with all sorts of male bodies and it’s getting so tight one can hardly breathe.  All those men standing, silently breathing in humanity, chatting quietly, and not moving a muscle, except the ones with the muscles. 

So while one doesn’t like being a sardine, one squeezes one’s self out into the breathable sidewalk.  And moments later the sidewalk becomes a bit claustrophobic as more patrons arrive in droves, genuinely eager to see the performance. 

The Temperamentals by Jon Marans and directed by Michael Matthews presented by The Blank Theatre Company is a fantastic show, with an exciting cast, and gives one the feeling of a special uniqueness not seen on any stage anywhere in Los Angeles.  This is one more reason to go to theatre and see something that will knock your (use your article of clothing here) off. 

“My true destiny is beginning.” – Harry Hay

Harry Hay (Dennis Christopher) is a man who, at first glance, is as inconspicuous as anyone.  It’s hard not to notice someone with extremely bad taste in clothing, scarf and other accessories.  But he wears this as a badge of honor, and this is the signature of his character throughout his life.

Rudi Gernriech (Erich Bergen) a Viennese Jew, Holocaust survivor, and costume designer takes a liking to Harry.  Perhaps they are opposites and are attracted to each other.  Or perhaps Rudi sees a challenge in fixing his fashion.  They meet in a seedy bar somewhere in Los Angeles in the early 1950’s and do so discreetly as to not draw attention to themselves because there are other eyes watching. 

Hay sets his foot on top of Gernriech’s foot.  One observes this, as being brutally masculine, as the force of Hay’s foot appears to mash Gernriech’s foot into the floorboard.  (No touchy feely here.) After a discussion about cameos they excuse themselves to make love in a clock tower of a Catholic church.

As he gets dressed, Hay tells Gernreich of his 2-year crazy dream of forming a special society for homosexual men.  He pulls out this document he believes will change the world.  And the presentation of the document is an opening to an inspirational moment of their lives.

Hay sees this document as the foundation of an organization of homosexual men fighting for their rights and privileges.

Hay tells him that the document is based on findings from the Kinsey study showing the prevalence of homosexual practices.  And he has practical experience in this behavior but also in organizing.  He had organized a political group, the “Bachelors for Wallace” campaign for a progressive Presidential candidate.

Gernriech calls the document “dangerous” but see the value of this organization.  He decides to join.  

From there they try to enlist some influential persons to join the society, one being Vincente Minnelli (Mark Shuncok).  Unfortunately, Minnelli is an a-list director.  He is directing An American in Paris and can’t risk being involved although he is sympathetic to the cause.

Secretly, the men start gathering, and in one of their early meetings two members perform a number “A Turnip Cannot Be a Wife”.  These two were Bob Hull (John Tartaglia) and Chuck Rowland (Mark Shunock) on the ukulele.  They are enlisted to be a part of the organization.  And on a hill overlooking Silver Lake, the four of them, Hay, Genreich, Rowland, and Hull form the core of an organization that they hope will change society’s view on homosexuality. 

Later, they called themselves The Matttachine Society or The Mattachine Foundation. (Historically the Mattachines was a name was taken from medieval troupe of men moving from town to town taking up social causes in their ballads and dramas.)

It’s probably not uncommon that the men in this foundation are intimate with each other. It serves to drive the drama in this historical play.

Hull and Rowland have a relationship, and not a very successful one at that.  Hull has a wondering eye and sets his sights on Dale Jennings (Patrick Scott Lewis). 

Jennings and Hull get involved although this does not last long.

"Harry was right.  You don’t ask about things." – Dale Jennings

Later Jennings is arrested for allegedly soliciting a police officer in a men’s room in Westlake Park.  Jennings enlists his friends from the Mattachine Foundation to help. They bail him out and Jennings plea of  “not guilty” was a pivotal moment in the Mattachine Foundation.  The Mattachines needed this cause to catapult their foundation into the national limelight.   

All in all, this was a very exciting and committed cast. One can’t even begin to see how Daniel Henning, the producer, pulled this out of his master showman’s bag of tricks. 

Dennis Christopher as Harry Hay was quite amusing.  He fits into un-matching articles of clothing as Hay would without questions and as the character one believes Christopher captures Hay.  It is surprising after creating the society, and having a lover, one finds out a secret that comes from a seemingly non-event surprising even avid theatergoers.  It is very funny moment. This was an inspirational performance by an actor who knows his craft. 

Erich Bergen as Rudi Gernreich was a particular type of character that is the throwback to the 50’s.  He is tall with pure white teeth, a mile wide, and wavy hair perfectly designed that seems to encapsulate the period.  As a costume designer, he is flawlessly dressed, and eager, in his way, to be a part of the organization. 

Mark Shunock as Chuck Rowland seemed to be the quiet progressive conservative of the group. He moved about on stage with a purpose as though he were gliding on skates. (One is allowed an inside joke.) Still, his was a rock solid presence, and natural, no matter what role he was in and he had multiple roles including the role of Vicente Minnelli.

John Tartaglia as Bob Hull was fantastic very effeminate with a wondering eye and a very nice stage presence.  It’s no wonder; he’s been a working actor since the age of two and one is sure that helps.  He has various roles and commands them all. He definitely has a face that everyone remembers.

Patrick Scott Lewis as Dale Jennings was the backbone of this play. Lewis has this ability to be vulnerable and strong at the same time.  There is a glimpse of humor during his most difficult moments on stage.  He’s a superb actor with a convincing subtext in his being.   He brings forth a multitude of strapping characters in each of the multiple roles he plays.  

John Marans, the writer, writes the play not as a linear narrative (There’s too much information available to fit the time frame.) but instead gives us snapshots of the special moments of the lives of the characters, who are, in principle, all reaching for a united spirited goal.   The play starts with an idea. The idea is placed on paper, and then implemented. The inspiration from Hay’s heart is the guiding force.  He is committed and fueled for motion.  No matter how small, Hay calls the group to action and with very little fuel. Later, the organization grows out of control. 

The history of every organization begins in the heart of a man and in this case, Hay is that man. 

Michael Matthews, the director, gives us a minimalist glimpse into the lives of these four characters focusing only on the sacred of moments.  Not enough time to give us an in depth character study.  What we get here are moments that fade like the wind, dreams with tiny cups and saucers, turnips and bad scarves.   We get a brief intimate look into the lives of men who float in and out of our subconscious.  Moments later they are gone and on to other parts of their lives. Still, it’s a fascinating look.

One prefers a narrative involving personal relationships and how they change during the course of events and it happens in this play to some degree.  One wishes the events highlighted on stage were emotionally charged giving us very high highs and even lower lows.

Kurt Boetcher, Scenic Designer, provides a two level set that is dark and uninviting.  It is a place for corners of intimate conversations away from prying eyes.  Nicely done.

Go see this and while you’re at it be a part of a men’s group. Find your voice and live peacefully with one another. 

Now through June 5, 2011

Mainstage: 2nd Stage Theatre
6500 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90038

Harry Hay mural at Great Wall  of Los Angeles by Judy Baca

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

By Joe Straw

In the middle of The Merchant of Venice there is an intimate scene with two young lovers sharing a garden space, slightly clothed.   Stolen away from family and religion (a Christian and a Jew) they seek an intimacy.  But in the background of their lives a crime has been committed, thousand of ducats stolen. It is an unspeakably horrific crime if one cares about money.  But this moment is about making love and for the time being they don’t think about the consequences, they only love for today, repercussions are for tomorrow. 

F. Murray Abraham as Shylock stars in a very “interesting” production of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare at the beautiful Broad Stage Theatre in Santa Monica.  Presented by the Theatre for A New Audience and directed by Darko Tresnjak.  This rendition takes us to a present day.

It was “interesting”.   (Oh, oh, isn’t “interesting” a charming code word.)  Well not necessarily.  Although, there were good things to celebrate there were also, um, not so good things and one will get to all of that later. 

Lost in this production was the city in Italy called Venice.  It was nowhere to be found.  Not a speck.  Not a touch. Well, maybe the masks but you couldn’t really see them because they were in shadow.  And John Lee Beatty, the Scenic Designer places us to a place that is very cold and uninviting, possibly a place that looks like a trading floor of a stock exchange somewhere in, not Venice, Italy.

Also, not much scenery in a place noted for finding love, sharing love, and making love.  Be that as it may what we’ve got here is a place where things, commodities, and passions are bought and sold, including our love interests. 

A dry martini of unrequited impassionate love will be served in this cold and steely bar on the outskirts of this financial barren wasteland.

This production of The Merchant of Venice was originally produced by Theatre for a New Audience at The Duke on 42nd Street from January 7 through March 11, 2007 and subsequently played at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival from March 22, through the 31, 2007.

Antonio (Jonathan Epstein) is sad of heart.  Despite his wealth and merchant experience nothing is able to cheer him up including Gratiano (Ted Schneider) his inebriated fool, acquaintance, and someone who is not likely to give the wisest of advice.

As the play goes, Bassanio (Graham Hamilton) has gotten himself into a lot of trouble with his finances.  He would like to woo the beautiful Portia (Kate MacCluggage), an heiress of Belmont but doesn’t have the resources (money) to make that happen.  He enlists his “unmarried” friend Antonio, the merchant of Venice, to help him once again.  Bassanio has a belief that Antonio will help him no matter the circumstances simply because Antonio loves him.  

“My purse, my person, my extremest means,
Lie all unlock’d to your occasions”. - Antonio

But Antonio is short of accessible funds.  He has ships bringing in merchandise from all over the world and things are a little tight.  But what he has to offer is his bond and that means a lot to the lenders in Venice.  Antonio tells Bassanio to make the deal and he will back the loan.

Meanwhile Portia (Kate MacCluggage) and her waiting woman Nerissa (Christen Simon Marabate) are making deals to benefit themselves.  Not willing to wait for love, they speak of marrying off Portia to the most suitable husband.  But the suitors must participate in a game if they are to have Portia’s hand and wealth.  They must pick the right chest of gold, silver or lead if they are to receive the pleasures of their desires.  If the suitors don’t pick the right chest, they are treated like lepers and ushered out the door with little regard.

Later, Bassanio finds and enlists Shylock to help him finance his ventures.  He needs three thousand ducats for three months.

“For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.” - Bassanio

But there is sinister undercurrent in these canals.  Antonio doesn’t like Jews, and in particular, Shylock. And for Shylock the feeling is mutual.

“I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.”  - Shylock

Meanwhile the merchant and the Jew speak of serious negotiations. 

“Fair Sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time y
You call’s me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much money”? – Shylock

“I am like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not”  - Antonio

Oh, but Shylock has revenge on his mind and it is an evil born from the core of his being. And he likes a little game with his loan.

“If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express’d in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.” - Shylock


Can Shylock be serious about these negotiations?  Nevertheless, one has to ask as to who of these two creatures are the worst of the lot: The one who makes the ridiculous deal, or the one who will happily cut off a pound of flesh if the bond is not paid?  They shake hands and the deal is made.

In this particular abbreviated version of Merchant Lancelot Gobbo (Jacob Ming-Trent) doesn’t have a father, Old Gobbo, but leaves the employment of Shylock because he believes Shylock is the devil.

“…for I am a Jew, if I serve the Jew any longer.” - Launcelot

And in this world of heated transactions we find young love in the city of Venice Jessica (Melissa Miller) daughter to Shylock and Lorenzo (Vince Nappo).  Not happy with the way things are going at home Jessica runs off with Lorenzo while Shylock is off feasting and bad mouthing Christians.

Meanwhile Portia invites the Prince of Morocco (Ralph Nash Thompson) in her home to try his fate at winning her hand.  He fails and off he sails into the night.

(In this abbreviated production of Merchant gone is Scene VIII between Salarino and Salanio.  It explains the happenings of Shylock after his daughter has left him with his money and jewels and how the townsfolk ridicule Shylock when he and the Duke are out searching for his daughter and his money.  This scene also explains the homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Bassino.)

Meanwhile Portia is at it again, this time with the Prince of Arragon (Christopher Randolph). Arragon makes a wrong choice and is summarily escorted out the door.  And as Arragon leaves, Bassanio is waiting in the wings. 

Portia grows weary of all this falderal.

No more, I pray thee:  I am half afeard
Thou wilt say anon he is some kin to thee.    Portia

F. Murray Abraham gives an incredible performance.  Not a wasted moment or an unnecessary movement on stage.  Calling him a “kinder and gentler” Shylock does not take away from a wonderful performance.  He is an actor that pays attention to the smallest of details, the knife on the sole of the shoe, and the way he prays are beautiful moments. Still, there is room to work the overbearing father and taskmaster to a greater degree so the other characters actions have a stronger meaning.

Andrew Dahl as Balthasar gives in so many ways to count.  The performance is charming and his moments on stage give new meaning to the word, actor.  His performance was delightful all around.

Jonathan Epstein is a very capable Antonio.  He had a rough and business like exterior but when it came to the emotions of the heart one is lost in understanding his objective.  With his objective not being clear he loses the sight of his wanting Bassanio, or wanting his happiness.  Either way Antonio seems to give in to Bassanino’s pleasure, or better yet he is left to blow to the winds of change, like the ships he loses at sea.  Despite all of his losses surely there’s more to this man than meets the eye, or dialogue for that matter.

Graham Hamilton, as Bassanio, was also very capable.  Still, there is more needed here in his relationship with Portia and with Antonio.  His moments on stage with Portia seem gratuitous.  There is not a moment when he falls completely in love with her.   He seems to be there for the money. Gone is the reaction of the choice he must make to have either Portia or Antonio and the maddening loss he must feel when he gives up the ring.  Still, these are choices one may not entirely agree with but in the context of this version of Merchant his performance was nicely done.

Kate MacCluggage, as Portia, is a stunning creature.  Certainly, she is able to protrude strength as well as wisdom in her performance.  She is a modern day woman who pushes a lot of buttons to get things done.  Her objective was to get Bassanio to make the right choice and through legal maneuverings save his friend from certain death.  She did all this in words but gave little in the way of actions on this night.  She is clear on her objective. But, as the character, her actions were not seamless.  The actions are lacking continuity and not formed to carry the character to her final place.

Christen Simon Marabate, as Nerissa, Portia’s waiting-woman, was confusing.  A modern day personal assistant but still an underling of sorts.  It was a relationship that was not well defined and gets little traction.  Also, her relationship with Gratiano was not developed and one could not find the reasons, her actions, why she would want to marry this inebriated fool.

Melissa Miller, as Jessica, was wonderful.  There is so much depth to her performance one can watch her all day.  Still, her relationship to her father, Shylock, was not developed enough to give one a reason why she was desperate to leave.  The dialogue suggests that he was overbearing, locks her up, etc., but Shylock didn’t seem that bad.  Yet her relationship with Lorenzo seemed spot on.

Jacob Ming-Trent, as Launcelot comes out as a “hip hop artist” in a very nice opening, strong voice and charming in a number of ways.  Still this was on opening that leads him nowhere.  One questions his relationship with his employer Shylock, and the unremarkable new relationship he has with his new employer.  His objective, slightly confusing, has him floundering on stage with nowhere to go.

Vince Nappo as Lorenzo did a fine job of rescuing Jessica from her ruthless father.  The scene with little clothing was very good but one questions his objective and one also questions the emotions of his back-story.  It is a small quibble; Nappo did a very fine job.

Christopher Randolph as the Prince ofArragon was absolutely fantastic.  He is an outrageous Prince with a lisp spewing copious amounts of spit on every character within an imaginable range.   He was so pompous and so princely. Defeated in the end, his wet lips are forced to find other conquests and sad to say those conquests will probably be in another lifetime.  Nevertheless a very fine performance.  Randolph played the Duke “off stage” which was a tragedy in this production of Merchant.  This was the body of authority in the trial scene and an important figure that was left off stage. 

Ted Schneider as Gratiano is very funny as the inebriated friend to Brassanio.  He is, in this production, the fool who spends too much time at the bar and gives the unwisest of advice.  As the character it leads to lightheartedness and little else.  And yet during the course of the play he falls in love and weds Nerrisa.  One doesn’t see this or see it coming. 

Raphael Nash Thompson was quite good as the Prince of Morocco.  This tall a majestic figure withered like a dry desert flower after a night of no rain when he chose the wrong computer.

Matthew Schneck had his moments as Salerio, as well did Grant Goodman as Solanio and Catherine Gowl was the understudy. 

Darko Tresnjack is a visionary and he has a particular vision for this Merchant, cold and steely. Still, there were a lot of remarkable moments in his version.  But, there was not a lot of room for Venice and love.  Shylock was not an emotionally overbearing father. Antonio didn’t seem to care for anyone, much less Bassanio.  Portia was hardly affected when the ring comes back to her.  Bassanio didn’t seem conflicted for his final lack of judgment.

For Tresnjack this all seemed to be the vision of a banking world where no one cares or asks questions. The deal is done, let’s move on, no crying, no emotion. What are we to make of this when we are searching for the emotional highs and lows of love and the human condition in theatre?

Do bankers cry?  Well, apparently, not too much.  They laugh when they take their pound of flesh and they do it everyday and all day.  One believes this is what Tresnjack is trying to say.  This production is touring all across the United States.  Do drop in and see it. 

One note about this particular set from John Lee Beatty.  The problem with working with technology is that it is changing rapidly.  One might have looked at the set as “high tech” in 2007 when this show was first produced is now looking like the old and decrepit laptop that is years old and sits in the corner of your room. Even the images projected on screen served it purpose then and must be regenerated to give us a modern day feel.