In spring repertory at the Shakes: a light comedy and a dark one 

The Merchant of Venice
Through April 25
Much Ado

About Nothing
Through April 26
Orlando Shakespeare Theater


Orlando Shakespeare Theater director Jim Helsinger has been tasked to act as a virtual stitching master for the company's production of The Merchant of Venice, a work he describes in the program as a "tapestry" of "comedy, tragedy, religious and racial intolerance, and romance." Tapestry is a kind term for a play whose hodgepodge construction more resembles a Bollywood film extravaganza than a thematically congruent dramatic narrative.

For by turns Merchant is a serious work about the nature of anti-Semitism, a silly roundelay of lovers' quarrels and childish intrigues, a sober exploration of the subjects of justice and mercy, and a cartoonish fairy tale peopled with comic caricatures and fantastic plot contrivances. That Helsinger mostly manages to overcome the daunting challenge of knitting these disparate designs into anything resembling a coherent evening of theater is a testament to his skill. It's also a testament to his cast's proficiency in hemming together the play's mismatched swatches and embroidering over some holes in the tale's fabric.

Key to the evening's success is the powerful performance of Joe Vincent as Shylock, the rich Jew of Venice whose hatred of those who have maligned him and his "tribe" for generations is as deeply rooted and malignant as theirs is of him. Highlighting his separateness from the Christian community in which he must toil and survive as an eternal outsider, Vincent sports a slight Eastern European accent; his faint Yiddishkeit is in sharp contrast to the clipped and proper English of the rest of the ensemble.

While Vincent must labor under the story's heavy weave, Marni Penning (as Portia, a rich heiress who later doubles as the young lawyer who confronts the vengeful Shylock in court), is free to sport more diaphanous garments. Beautiful, giddy and love-struck, her character charms and connives, giving Merchant most of its lighthearted and enjoyable moments.

Armistead Johnson is personable and sympathetic as Bassanio, the play's third most important personage, as he attempts to maneuver gracefully between his friendship with Steven Patterson's Antonio (the merchant of the title) and his romance with Portia, but is a bit too earnest in his portrayal. This agreeable young performer needs to modulate his temperament and learn to employ the subtler weapons in his actor's arsenal.

While The Merchant of Venice is a tricky work because of its complex threads, the Shakes has tailored it to as good a fit as can be expected.

History tells us that it took awhile for the Allies to get their act together before making considerable and finally successful progress against their Axis enemies on the battlefields of World War II. The same may be said of Orlando Shakespeare Theater's current production of the Bard's romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, which has been set by director Dennis Lee Delaney in the countryside of post—World War II Italy. This production starts off flat-footed, but ultimately finds its marching shoes and emerges as a victorious parade of high comedy, subtle wit and ferocious wordplay.

While it may be somewhat unusual to hear the voice of Bing Crosby crooning under the scene changes of a Shakespeare play, Delaney's choice of time and place is as pitch-perfect as the singing of actor Andrew Knight, who, as the servant Balthazar, delights us with the Act 1 song based on the poem with the line "Hey, nonny, nonny." (The song was written by Michael Andrew and is backed up by a quartet of 1940s-style singers who sound as authentic as the 78 rpm disks in musical archives.)

Once again the Shakes offers up an ensemble of utterly competent and articulate veteran performers, including Steven Patterson as Don Pedro, Joe Vincent as Leonato and Chris Mixon as Dogberry. These actors imbue their characters with intelligence, passion and, when necessary, the appropriate measure of buffoonery. In fact, the entire cast is as close to perfect as any I have seen of late.

Much Ado's dramatic and romantic tensions largely depend upon the actions and motivations of its main pair of lovers, Benedick and Beatrice. So the success of the play naturally falls upon the shoulders of the performers who inhabit these two pivotal roles, and it is safe to say that in Darren Bridgett and Marni Penning, director Delaney has found two generals capable of leading their troops to a well-deserved triumph. Both actors have a way of making dialogue eminently understandable, their inner desires succinct and revealing, and their conflicts both personal and universal. And while Bridgett can utilize his entire rubbery body to convey his emotional turmoil, Penning can do the same with a tilt of her head or the widening of an eye.

Much Ado is definitely not a play "about nothing." In this delightful rendition, the comedy proves to be an affectionate treatise on romantic love and humanity's eternal desire to pick up the pieces of broken relationships and battered dreams.


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