Considering the numerous versions of The Merchant of Venice I have seen in the last several years, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a rendition by DC’s Commedia dell’Arte company, Factions of Fools. Having witnessed their exquisite Miser and Our Town last season, though, I should have known that the Bard would be in good hands. The show opens with characters miming floating along single file in a gondola with a profile of an Italian town painted on the backdrop — in an instant with a bit of music and whiff of imagination, we’re right there in Venice.
Two sets of couples do the heavy lifting in terms of the character development and pivotal action-filled premises while the others don gorgeous masks of comedy for hilarity, double casting and plot development. Shakespeare’s plot, filled with twists, thwarted intentions, masked identity and unanticipated turns of the romantic Venetian Renaissance, hinges on Bassanio securing a debt that he can’t repay, and coming to grips with the consequences of an ill-advised contract.
Vince Eisenson and Natalie Cutcher as Bassanio and Portia are as effective with the Bard’s text as anyone I’ve seen in a while, using inflections and nuances as a couple in crisis maneuvering through social class distinctions. Ben Lauer as Lorenzo and Alexseyla McBride as his beloved Jessica are also unmasked and have to find their way through unnerving circumstances while dealing with Shylock, Jessica’s headstrong father. In her first appearance with the company, Gallaudet student McBride brings an assurance in her stride and attentiveness to her character.
Leading the pack is Matthew Pauli as Shylock, whose depth and theatrical experience come through in portraying this complex character, tender with his daughter Jessica yet unrelenting in getting his contracted pound of flesh due him, no matter how unreasonable. Even while masked, Pauli brings a personal touch to the infamous Shylock through his vocals and physical positioning that relay his strength, stubbornness, conceits and flaws.
The Merchant of Venice is a challenging piece. The play addresses love and justice and contractual obligation with a trial thrown in for good measure—it’s heady stuff. I have seen the multi-talented Paul Reisman as a performer over the years. Clearly undaunted by tough material, Reisman tackles the directing duties of this challenging piece with clarity and wit.
The Merchant of Venice
closes December 11, 2016
Details and tickets
He keeps the physicality and buffoonery going full pace while maintaining an enjoyable scale and balance. The actors deliver the lines with utmost respect and precision—and so what if they twirl around on each other’s shoulders to make their statements hit home? Reisman makes it all work, including the ASL signing – the communication is inclusive, thorough and seamless– the Fools make it look so easy and we’re all the better for it.
The clever set by Daniel Flint who does a terrific turn as trusted friend Gratiano, includes curved steps on both sides of a raised platform with curtain-covered openings for ready access, entrances and exit. The exquisite masks by Aaron Cromie represent the authentic commedia art form. Costumes by Lynly A. Saunders are especially effective with pleated coattails, accented collars, waistcoats, pantaloons and above all the brigadier hats, scarves and bonnets. Neat lighting design by Chris Curtis is apparent in the second act that opens pensively with subdued shading bathing the set and the folds of the pleated garments in a rouge glow. Music by Jesse Terrill enhanced by sound engineer Gordon Nimmo-Smith includes the sweet lull of the accordion and a playful ditty at the finale that will send you out humming with a post-show buzz.
This Factions of Fools production excavates the experiences, targets the human elements that speak to us and relays its messages with the pure joy of movement and group physicality. Shylock’s somber line – “If you prick us do we not bleed” is in there, but when the pricking move transmutes to a tickle-fest, can we not help but laugh? That’s what the Faction of Fools Theatre Company does for us—returns us to a safe place that’s carefree and funny while relaying the timeless messages of life and humanity.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare . Adapted and directed by by Paul Reisman .
Cast: Natalie Cutcher, Vince Eisenson, Daniel Flint, Ben Lauer, Alexseyia McBride, Matthew Pauli, Teresa Spencer, Ryan Tumulty . Mask Designer—Aaron Cromie . Lighting Design –Chris Curtis . Scenic Design- Daniel Flint . Costume Designer–Lynly A. Saunders . Composer – Jesse Terrill . Sound Engineer—Gordon Nimmo-Smith . ASL Consultant and Interpreter – Dr. Lindsey D. Snyder . ASL Interpreter Coordinator and Interpreter – Krystin Balzarini . Stage Manager—Samantha Owen . Produced by Faction of Fools . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.