The Merchant of Venice

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I am usually rather skeptical of Shakespeare productions, whether modified or not.  That being said, Urban Impact’s production of The Merchant of Venice proved to be a very entertaining. The show, edited and directed by Eric Anderson, did well in delivering this Shakespeare comedy to a modern audience.

Each summer, Urban Impact produces a play by Shakespeare at the New Hazlett Theater almost completely performed by high school students. Urban Impact is a faith based organization focused on community development. At times during the show, students would yell stop, and step away from the story to talk about how they may relate to a certain character. They spoke of being alienated, running away from home and how the themes of love and mercy have shaped their lives. These were short, touching interruptions that are meant to touch on the good work of Urban Impact.

For those unfamiliar with The Merchant of Venice, it begins when Bassanio (J’Quay Gibbs) asks for a loan from his friend Antonio (Tyler Wright) in order to ask for his love Portia’s (Abby Glover) hand in marriage. Antonio’s ships are out to sea, leaving him with no liquid funds and Bassanio is forced to ask for money from Antonio’s enemy, Shylock (Melannie Taylor), who demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the debt is not paid back in time. During this time, Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Elena Matos) is scheming to steal her mother’s money and run away with Lorenzo (Roman Ramsey), a Christian. This is a problem because all their feuding is over who is a Christian and who is a Jew. It was a little weird sitting in a show produced by a Christian organization as “the Jew” is berated and defeated, but I wrote it off due to the fact this show was written hundreds of years ago. While Bassanio is away we learn from Solanio (Skyla Bruno) and Salerio (Marlo Hall) a rumor that Antonio’s ships were lost at sea and Shylock rejoices when Tubal (Kaitlyn Sharkey) reveals the news.  During this time Bassanio has won the hand of Portia, while his wild friend Gratiano (Ransom Townsend) has won over her clerk Nerissa (Calema Graham). They are informed of Antonio’s fate and rush back to Venice to argue his case at the trial overseen by the Duke (Gretchen Eckert). There is a twist of course, but I will let you find out for yourself.

The set featured a two story brick and stucco row house along a Venetian canal. A small boat off to the left full of shipping containers and chests, overflowing onto the stage, or “dock” acted as seats and props.  The second story was definitely taken advantage of with characters climbing out of windows and Ramsey taking a blow from a falling suitcase like a champ. Off the stage, on audience level, was Portia’s quarters, with silk linens and exquisite chests. It also gave the audience the feeling of being in the room while the girls discussed the suiters and squeaked and squealed over Bassanio.

The show blends the old language of Shakespeare with our modern time period of cell phones and flat brimmed caps. Cell phones were often used on stage, used in place of money or documents. When Shylock and Antonio seal their three day deal, she speaks into her phone and the familiar voice of Siri announces an alarm has been set.  The majority of the cast were dressed as if they were in the Hamptons, all except the potential suiters for Portia.  The Prince of Morocco (Azzer Carpenter, also Lancelot) reminded me of the Artist Formerly Known As Prince.  He was dressed completely in gold, including a glimmering trench coat and performed an impressive backbend exit. The Prince of Arragon(Johnny Sikma, sound/music designer), however, looked as though he had been plucked from a rap video.

To me, it is a shame this show only ran one weekend. The cast of this show was simply outstanding. It was obvious that these students put a lot of work into studying the script and really making the characters come to life. The added musical element was something I definitely enjoyed. Performances of songs drawn from the script such as “All that Glitters is not Gold” and “My Daughter and My Ducats” showcased the casts acting ability but also their skills in singing, piano and violin. The natural delivery and entertaining performance by the actors really brought out the humor in this comedy while adding and element that was truly their own.

For more information on Urban Impact Shakes check out their webiste here.

Performance Date: Thursday, August 6, 2015