Tag: Lucas Hall
Centuries later, Shakespeare’s message still rings true
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|The Merchant of Venice|
|Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through March 27 | tickets: $23-$75 | more info
Reviewed by Oliver Sava
Putting Shakespeare’s plays in a contemporary setting often produces mixed results, and Darko Tresnjak’s corporate take on The Merchant of Venice finds both its strengths and weaknesses in its modern context. The national tour of the 2007 Off-Broadway production, Merchant of Venice stars Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham in the role of Shylock, a chilling portrayal of a man trampled by an oppressive society on a malicious quest for justice. The contemporary context is used by Tresnjak to expand the story beyond Shakespeare’s words, and the social, economic, and political changes of the last 400 years give the script new meaning, particularly with Shylock’s character. The set design is sleek and tech-heavy, the men wear three-piece suits, and Portia’s (Kate MacCluggage) caskets are MacBooks that unlock with a USB key, yet the concept never takes over under Tresnjak’s crisp, focused staging. The two main plotlines – the first centralized on Shylock and his socioeconomic troubles, the second on Portia’s romantic exploits – are balanced and grounded by the strength of their principal performances, and together create a story that resonates on both a global and personal level.
The show begins with the title character Antonio (Tom Nelis) in a state of melancholy. As his friends deduce the source of his pain to be his heart, Bassanio (Lucas Hall) arrives to ask Antonio for money so that he can travel to Belmont and woo Portia, earning her sizable inheritance in the process. Scholars have long speculated the romantic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, and Tresnjak and Nelis interpret Antonio as a closeted older businessman utterly devoted to the object of his affection. The corporate environment gives new meaning to the casting, with Antonio serving in a CEO position while Bassanio and friends make up the junior executives, with Gratiano (Ted Schneider) as the office drunk for good measure. Antonio’s work relationship with Bassanio prevents their relationship as much as social pressures, and when he lets his affections for his friend overrule his business judgment, he ends up on trial with a pound of his flesh on the scales of justice.
Meanwhile, Portia and her waiting-woman Nerissa (Christen Simon Marabate) compare Portia’s various suitors on an iPhone, awaiting the next batch to pick from the three “caskets” of lead, silver, and gold. The two actresses have great chemistry, and MacCluggage’s Portia is so powerful that the moments where she can unwind with Nerissa are a treat. Both actresses use the verse beautifully, and they avoid some of the problems that come up elsewhere in the production as actors modernize the language. One instance where the modernization works is with Launcelot Gobbo (Jacob Ming-Trent), Shylock’s stoner assistant that turns Shakespeare’s words into slam poetry, and his fantastic “fiend” monologue is a highlight of the first act.
Bassanio uses Antonio’s credit to acquire a loan from Shylock, a Jewish lender, who despises Antonio’s anti-Semitism and lends the 3,000 ducats on the condition that if the bond is not repaid in the specified time, a pound of flesh will be taken from Antonio in lieu of interest. The corporate setting increases the intensity of the scene where Shylock and Antonio agree to the bond, and Tresnjak uses Shakespeare’s language as a kind of boardroom code, with Elizabethan poetry acting as a form of subversive power play. The modern setting changes the character of Shylock in profound ways, especially considering the struggles of the Jewish people over the last century. This Shylock lives in a post-Holocaust world, fully aware of the devastating damage caused by the irrational fears and prejudices of others. His devotion to his spirituality doesn’t fit in with Antonio’s corporate vision, and his treatment becomes a symbol for the ways in which traditional religious views are being forgotten in modern age. When Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Melissa Miller) elopes with Lorenzo (Vince Nappo), an associate of Antonio’s, Shylock loses his stoic demeanor, maliciously going after his promised pound of flesh when Antonio’s ships are lost at sea.
The drama of the Shylock plot is balanced by the humor of Portia’s, and as her suitors choose between the three caskets to find the one with her picture inside, she anxiously awaits the arrival of Bassanio. The suitors are hit and miss, with Raphael Nash Thompson’s towering Moroccan dictator inspiring laughs through his quiet, yet exaggerated aggression, while Christopher Randolph’s lisping Prince of Arragon is too over-the-top and ends up falling flat. Bassanio arrives and picks the right casket, but their celebration is cut short when he learns that Antonio is in prison, awaiting trial for not paying Shylock. Portia offers to pay off the bond times two, and then dresses up like a man with Nerissa and devises a plan to save Antonio from Shylock’s wrath. The image of Antonio in an orange jumpsuit calls to mind real world images of white-collar inmates in prison for their economic deviances, and without the corporate environment Antonio is able to act on his desire for Bassanio. The trial scene is a break neck race to the finish, as Abraham explodes with fury, the years of degradation finally breaking him and forcing him to vengeful action. Then Portia sees Antonio and Bassanio kiss, and the tension skyrockets as she forgets about the mercy she preached earlier. It all comes crashing down on poor Shylock, and his final moments on stage are heartbreaking, stripped of his yarmulke, his daughter, and his dignity.
The Portia plot resolves in typical Shakespeare romance fashion, with the characters misunderstanding each other until they finally end up in handy little pairs, but the emphasis on Antonio and Bassanio ends the play on a bittersweet note. Despite the occasional misstep with the comedic aspects, mostly with jokes that don’t have any scriptural basis and are tech-based, the direction reveals aspects of the play that give it new relevance in modern times. Proving that despite the changes in culture, the fundamental messages of Shakespeare’s plays are still applicable to contemporary issues.
All photos by Gerry Goodstein.
Design team is all that’s left above water
|Goodman Theatre presents|
|A True History of the Johnstown Flood|
|by Rebecca Gilman
directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 18th (more info | tickets)
|reviewed by Catey Sullivan|
Rebecca Gilman’s latest play is titled A True History of the Johnstown Flood, but those hoping for any kind of insight into the tragedy will leave the Goodman Theatre’s production disappointed. As will those hoping to see a compelling story peopled with engaging characters. What A True History of the Johnstown Flood does offer is a condescending 2.5 hour lecture on the evils of Robber Baron capitalism backed by an award-worthy sound design and some amazing sets.
Speaking of which: The Goodman itself becomes an unintended, unavoidable and meta-theatrical punchline when one character opines with righteous indignation that some people go to the theater just to see the elaborate sets. The line refers to theater-goers of the 19th century, but it might as well refer to those who show up at the Goodman during the run of A True History of the Johnstown Flood.
Director Robert Falls might be working with paper dolls for all the authentic emotion he gets from a cast trapped in a narrative that has all the authenticity of a Perils of Pauline episode.
Set in 1889, the piece contains many plays-within-the-play, as it follows the fate of the Baxter family acting troupe. Siblings Fanny (Heather Wood, doing what she can with an underwritten ingenue), James (Stephen Louis Grush, consistently out-acted by his wig) and Richard (Cliff Chamberlain, stuck in a character whose emotional journey peaks with an excruciating case of explosive diarrhea) represent the working poor as they perform for a pittance at a posh resort located alongside a manmade lake high above working class Johnstown.
The Baxters perform in the style of the time – hackneyed plots delivered with stilted, exaggerated gestures and plumy, overripe line delivery. It is not a good sign when it becomes impossible to differentiate between the Baxter’s melodramas and Gilman’s drama. But Gilman’s narrative is that hollow and histrionic and under Falls’ direction, that histrionically performed.
Take (please) a scene wherein Clara Barton arrives in Johnstown and encounters Richard in the throes of what was once called the bloody flux. The dialogue is as stiff as a cadaver as Clara announces who she is and explains that she is with the Red Cross, and that the Johnstown Flood is the first Natural Disaster the Red Cross has responded to since the Civil War was a war and not a Natural Disaster. It’s like watching the Hall of Presidents exhibit at Disneyland: Soulless, superficial and self-consciously educational.
The 90-minute first act is a long, slow slog of exposition and declamation, as the Baxter siblings discuss their “museum worthy sets” and perform for the swells. James, who has been to Europe and ostensibly seen a few Ibsen plays, augments his performing career by writing bad plays about the unfair conditions of the proletariat. Cue the thick-as-river-bottom-sludge foreshadowing: James runs into an ancient fisherman who explains the potential for flooding like some latter day Sophoclean messenger.
The worst instance of this automaton-school-of-(over)acting comes toward the close of the 90-minute first act, in what should be a breathtakingly suspenseful climax as the Baxters – and their newfound patron, the wealthy Andrew Lippincott (Lucas Hall) - are holed up with their sets in a freight car as the storms rages outside. The huddled group learns of the approaching disaster via a series of telegrams, each one delivered by the same, increasingly het up fellow.
Instead of the all-but unbearable tension borne of the knowledge that a disaster is imminent and one might be breathing one’s last, the scene is all fussy, unintended comedy. By the time the water arrived (with a blackout and Richard Woodbury’s extraordinary sound design), we found ourselves so distracted by the telegram man’s superpowers (Was the telegram office right next door to the Baxter’s train car? How was he getting back and forth so fast? Could he fly?) the flood itself seemed almost beside the point.
Sound designer Woodbury provides the sole harrowing moment in the piece, capturing the crashing din of 20 million tons of water – and the countless trees, homes, corpses, animals and debris caught within its violent roil – with an apocalyptic sonic roar so fearsome it evokes the fury of the Old Testament’s God. It’s horrifying, and it is the sole moment in the play that effectively evokes the nightmarish event that is the Johnstown Flood.
Post-flood (and post intermission), the story dribbles into soggy inconsequence. People enter and exit looking for loved ones on a stage strangely bereft of corpses given the elaborate nature of the Goodman’s production values elsewhere in the drama. The flood killed over 2,000 people, but for all its big-budget resources, the Goodman has only three or four dead bodies on stage in a scene that supposedly shows desperate survivors searching for their loved ones amid hundreds of fatalities.
Later comes a potentially intriguing exchange as Lippincott discusses the flood with an official from the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club – the organization responsible for building Lake Conemaugh as a playground for the rich, and thereby endangering the lives of the working class folk downstream. But the Club man disappears after that single conversation. Instead of the class conflict the scene seems to portend, Gilman gives us only James’ hackneyed attempts at social justice via melodrama, with the Baxters beating their breasts and wailing unto the skies with all the verisimilitude of canned hams.
In the end, the Baxters inexplicably forsake their careers in the theater. A new cast is seen rehearsing James’ play on Broadway while James and Fanny are seemingly far away in a domestic life that doesn’t involve their “museum quality sets.” Their abrupt retirement would be perplexing, if the story had given audiences any reason to care. But there is no such reason, unless, of course, you want to know what became of all that marvelous scenery.