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Warehouse Theatre's Merchant of Venice makes us laugh and think

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Merchant of Venice at Warehouse Theatre

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“It is easy to judge those who are unlike ourselves. We make them convenient targets for our own frustrations and guilt. Help us, O God, to judge ourselves aright and to show mercy to others, as we in turn look to you for mercy and forgiveness.”

This was the Prayer of Confession recited at my church the day after I saw the Warehouse Theatre’s production of Merchant of Venice. And it immediately struck me as a perfect follow up to Jayce Tromsness’ staging of Shakespeare’s tragic comedy.

The play follows a Venetian merchant, Antonio (Matt Reece), who becomes indebted to a Jewish moneylender, Shylock (Paul Savas). After enduring years of abuse by Christians, including Antonio, Shylock strikes a different kind of bargain – instead of charging interest on this particular loan, Shylock will accept one of two outcomes: either straight repayment in full, or a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Meanwhile, in what sometimes seems like an entirely different universe, we’re also given a crazy comedy of love, cross-dressing, and riddles.

Amazingly, the two worlds coexist well on stage (I hear this Shakespeare fellow is really going places). Director Jayce Tromsness places the action across a wonderful, layered set (by Shannon Robert) and packs the theatre with fantastic actors. Tromsness has long had a gift for bringing Shakespeare to life, for wringing natural line readings from the poetry, and he works that magic again here. He’s also adept at creating vividly “theatrical” moments, and we get a lot of that, too, from the brief appearances of puppets (picking up on the words of a famous 19th century commentator that the characters in the play are puppets clothed with human flesh?) to the bright, startling, late-in-the-play appearance of a character wearing red amidst the otherwise earth-tone-drenched proceedings (an allusion to the girl in the red dress in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List?).

Apart from the many visually distinctive moments, Tromsness also gives us a host of wonderful performances. Paul Savas presents a layered and sympathetic Shylock, and his final line, his final moment on stage will haunt you. Meagan McNerney Azar and Anne Tromsness are terrific as Portia and her friend, Nerissa, both of them alluring, engaging, and gifted at bringing out the comedy in their characters. Maxim Williams makes a strong impression in a small role as the boastful Prince of Morocco, and Rick Conner is simply hilarious in a tiny role as the Prince of Arragon. I guarantee you will laugh at his entrance alone.

Matt Reece, Andy Croston, Michael Hart, William Pope, Christopher Joel Ontken – the list goes on and on. The entire cast deserves mention, all of them providing moments that stick out in my mind – right down to the impressively assured eighth grader Stevie Keese as one of Portia’s attendants. What a treat to watch such a gifted cast.

All of it serves a play that, as director Tromsness points out in his program note, is troubling. What are we to make of these characters, of their treatment of Shylock? Is it he a “devilish Jew” getting his just deserts, or is it an indictment of the inhuman way we can treat our fellow humans? How do we, as a society, view Muslims these days? How do we treat the illegal aliens in our midst? How do we justify the torture of “enemy combatants”? These are heavy questions, and one’s we should seriously ponder. And it’s a credit to this production that the comedy never gets in the way of these deeper issues.

The Merchant of Venice runs through March 31 at the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville’s historic West End. For tickets, contact the box office at 864-235-6948 or visit warehousetheatre.com.

UPDATE

A few hours after posting this I had the horrible realization that I'd forgotten to say anything about the music. Yes, the music. This production featured an original score by Braxton Belew and Sarah Black, who record and perform as Valentine Wolfe. It's such a rarity these days, especially in regional theatre, for a show to carry an original score, and the work of Belew and Black here does quite a lot toward setting the mood of the whole production.

There are some vocals, a lot of bass, and a lot of atmosphere. I'm pretty sure I recognized an old Peter Warlock tune, but otherwise the music was original, textured and a nice enhancement to the evening. CD's of the music are available for sale in the lobby before and after the show. While I failed to pick one up, I'm seriously considering heading back down to the Warehouse this weekend simply to buy myself a copy.

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