Bard Fest: ‘Merchant’ an entertaining comedy with troubling themes

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.bardfestindy.com.

By Wendy Carson

One of the things I love about Bardfest is that at least one production is more obscure or rarely produced. This year’s offering is “The Merchant of Venice,” presented by First Folio Productions, adapted and directed by Doug Powers.

The play is actually a romantic comedy, but has tragic overtones. It sports an easy-to-follow plotline and is immensely entertaining. Therefore, you may wonder why is it not done more often. I can only guess it is due to the overwhelming Antisemitism rife in the story’s main plot. So let’s address that matter: I believe it exists, not just to justify the character’s level of vengeance, but also because in the overwhelmingly Catholic nation, the Jews were a minority. This opens a dialogue regarding the mistrust, denigration and oppression of minorities. Especially in our turbulent modern times.

That all being said, let’s now get to the actual play.

The crux of the story is that Bassanio desires to woo the lovely Portia, a wealthy heiress. Since he has foolishly squandered his own fortunes, he turns to his beloved friend, Antonio, to loan him the money needed (which will be easily repaid by his new wife’s money). With Antonio’s funds tied up in his own business ventures, they must seek the aid of a local Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Having been slandered and ill-treated my Antonio for years, Shylock is loath to help him, but agrees to the loan provided he is delivered a pound of flesh upon default. Since the gentlemen know that there is no way this would occur, they agree.

Portia’s father passed away, but had devised a method to aid her in the choosing of the correct bridegroom. Three coffers are given, one each of gold, silver and lead, each with a warning regarding the contents – only one granting permission to marry. After other suitors fail, Bassanio chooses correctly.

Meanwhile, Antonio’s ships have all wrecked leaving him unable to repay the debt. Add to this that one of his friends, Lorenzo, not only eloped with Shylock’s only daughter, Jessica, but also converted her to Christianity, and the overwhelmed Shylock resolves to exact his revenge by literally collecting the promised pound of flesh. Bassanio offers to save his friend by paying twice the amount of the debt, but for Shylock, this is not about money, it is about his honor.

A trial commences and Shylock is granted his pound of flesh. However, the visiting lawyer – Portia in disguise – announces that upon taking his due, he not only must take the exact amount (no more, no less) but must also not spill a drop of blood in its collection. What will Shylock do?

Emily Bohn as Portia and Amanda Boldt as her maid, Nerissa, aptly bring forward the cunning that women are scarcely afforded in many of the Bard’s productions. Ryan Ruckman (Antonio) and Zach Taylor (Bassanio) portray not only the determination of each character but their intensely loving friendship. Ryan Reddick beautifully embodies the emotional sorrow and vengeance that drive Shylock to his end.

While John Mortell plays three characters throughout the show, his endearingly comic turn as Portia’s somewhat dimwitted servant, Balthasar, is truly a delight to behold. Bringing much-needed levity to a show that can be fraught with darkness.

The cast also includes Jim Banta, Aaron Cleveland, Ben Mathis, Pat Mullen, Rachel Snyder, Dwuan Watson Jr. and Lexy Weixel – all excellent.

Powers places the play in an Italy resembling the 1930s, as his Director’s Note explains, a time when rampant antisemitism has swept Europe, but its tragic endgame was yet to be revealed.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5-7, at the Indyfringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

We’ve got a hot lead on a play at the Fringe

By John Lyle Belden

New local company Fat Turtle Theatre makes a bold debut with its production of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the Pulitzer-winning drama by David Mamet, directed by company co-founder Aaron Cleveland.

For those unfamiliar, the play is about real estate salesmen in a high-pressure Chicago office in the early 1980s. For those who have seen the 1992 film, note that Blake (a/k/a “F— You,” played by Alec Baldwin) was a part written for the movie, and does not appear in the play. One can presume, prior to the opening scene, that Blake already made his famous speech that the bosses have declared a sales contest with a Cadillac as first prize, and third place means you’re fired. The best sales leads are going to the best salesmen, and office manager Williamson (played here by Ryan Reddick) is in charge of doling them out.

The play opens with Williamson being berated and cajoled by past top-seller Shelly “the Machine” Levene (Doug Powers), who feels he deserves the top Glengarry leads. We next meet frustrated fellow salesmen Dave Moss (Luke McConnell) and George Aaronow (Jeff Maess), who consider more drastic measures to get ahead. Finally, we see top seller Richard Roma (Tristan Ross), working up to a sale with his latest mark, timid James Lingk (Rex Riddle).

The second act begins with the office having suffered a burglary, investigated by Detective Baylen (Jason Page). As the whole ensemble flows in and out of the room, the drama intensifies and we learn a lot more than who wins the new car.

Speaking of hot leads, these roles are among the most coveted among male actors when this play revives on Broadway, and Fat Turtle has found a worthy cast for the Indy boards. Powers gives his all in the most high-profile role, taking Shelly to every emotional extreme while staying believable and relatable.

Ross makes good use of his talent for Shakespearean patter to deliver Roma’s pseudo-philosophical soliloquies that he uses to lull prospective buyers into being receptive to his pitch. We can easily buy that this is the best man at selling patches of dirt to insecure souls with money.

Maess embodies the not-getting-any-younger quiet desperation of Aaronow, while McConnell expresses the more desperate and impulsive urge to get ahead at any cost.

Riddle does mouse-y well, and we can’t help but feel for him. Page’s performance just gets stronger as his character gets increasingly frustrated with the room full of patience-testing egos. Reddick’s Williamson is just an unapologetic a-hole, well played without compromise, and we have to respect him for that.

There’s a chuckle to be had here and there, and the marvelous absurdity of what grown men are willing to say to each other under stress – or just to keep a sucker in the sale. And, of course, be prepared for lots of salty language. This is drama at its best, a half-dozen men sweating out what could be one of the best or, more likely, worst days of their miserable lives. You owe it to yourself to close the sale on some tickets for this show before it closes on Oct. 15.

Performances are at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., just east of the College, Mass Ave., St. Clair intersection. Visit www.IndyFringe.org for tickets.

Indy companies expertly flesh out Richard III’s twisted skeleton

By John Lyle Belden

In 2012 came the stunning news of a human skeleton discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England. It was the twisted body of what history and legend regard as a twisted soul, King Richard III. This setting opens the Catalyst Repertory/First Folio production of William Shakespeare’s play about the infamous monarch at the IndyFringe Theatre.

In what would be the last years of England’s Wars of the Roses between contesting royal families, King Edward IV is sick and dying. Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, is reviled for his crippled body, which brings on his sour attitude. The clever Duke decides if he can’t look like a hero to gain the crown, he’ll be the villain. But between him and the throne are George, Duke of Clarence; nobles faithful to Edward’s wife, Queen Elizabeth; and the child heir, Edward, Prince of Wales.

Some people are going to have to die.

Matt Anderson completely transforms into Richard, with the help of costume artist Linda Schornhorst (whose excellent work adorns the whole cast). This, coupled with Anderson’s complete control of his body and expressions, keeps him the focus of every scene. He leers towards the audience, proudly revealing to us his schemes. He lurks like a menacing vulture as his plans unfold. He contorts himself into whatever ingratiating pose will fool those around him as he continues grasping to take, then desperately hold power.

Carey Shea anchors the play as doomed Clarence, heroic Richmond and the archaeologist who bridges the gap between history and today. Jay Hemphill is charming as the Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s cousin and co-conspirator until he becomes cursed with a conscience.

Also notable are the women of the play, Allison Clark Reddick as Elizabeth; Christina Howard as Lady Anne, Richard’s unwilling bride (and a few scenes as Lord Grey); Nan Macy as the Duchess of York, Richard’s disappointed mother; and Casey Ross as Queen Margaret, widow of a previous monarch and bitter prophet.

The children – Dalyn Stewart as Prince Edward and Lex Lumpkin as his cousin, the Duke of York – are both sharp.

And kudos to Doug Powers, Matthew Socey, Ryan Reddick, Kevin Caraher, Matthew Walls, Mark Cashwell and John Mortell in various roles. Thanks to Glenn L. Dobbs’ direction and the play being adapted to two hours, in two acts, by Dobbs, Ross and Ben Power, it’s not hard to follow the sprawling cast of characters. (Richard has many of them killed, anyway.)

Plays like this are always apropos in an era of political turmoil, and performances this good are worth seeing at any time.

“Richard III” runs through July 9 at the IndyFringe Basile stage, 719 E. St. Clair (by the intersection of St. Clair, College and Massachusetts Ave.). See indyfringe.org for info and tickets.