The Merchant of Venice at The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company proves that you don’t need a fancy set or even a stage to bring high quality works of Shakespeare to the audience in their production of The Merchant of Venice. An intimate and innovative staging of Shakespeare’s great comedy, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company brings new life – through vivacious and energetic actors – to the play. Director Teresa Castracane provides the audience with a concept that could only be addressed as “Shakespeare in your living room.” The players have virtually no stage space, a strip between two rows of in-the-round seating. But this does not stop the show from being an absolute masterpiece of compelling comedy, explosive emotions, and all around fun. The actors use the audience as their stage. It is a unique and engaging concept, having the players running through chairs, over people, leaning on audience seats as if they were the very fence posts of Venice. This brings a high level of intimacy to the performance, really allowing audience to get to know the characters and their stories. It’s even a little interactive, I found myself sharing a flask with Gratiano (James Jager) late in act II. The audience feels almost like they are a part of the world as it unfolds around them and truly there is no better way to absorb Shakespeare than direct immersion.

Matthew Sparacino and Heather Howard in 'Merchant of Venice.' Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Matthew Sparacino and Heather Howard in ‘Merchant of Venice.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Costume Designer Jen Bevan kept it simple to allow the actors to really do their work, but her designs, however basic, still caught the eye and added a level of definition to some of Shakespeare’s more recognizable characters. Outfitting Shylock (Greg Burgess) in a long black leather trench coat really enhanced the image of the stock character; the evil Jew. And all of the fine men of Vienna had wonderful jerkins and the ladies were outfitted in fine shades of blue and turquoise. Bevan’s finest creation was displayed in Lancelet (Kelsey Painter) the servant with the baggy itchy burlap britches, the carnivale style face paint and the stuffed sock monkey attached to her person. The costumes created nice accentuations for the already vivid characters.

The show is very physical. Characters constantly storming the main play space from everywhere, constantly running, jumping, and enjoying themselves; the fast paced nature of the show keeping it intense and exciting for the audience. Perhaps the most physical character we see is Lancelet (Kelsey Painter) the servant who trades masters like baseball cards. Painter adapts the physicality of an actual monkey – akin to the stuffed one attached to her costume. She literally apes about the space, swinging with galloping footfalls from one end to the other, bursting into tantrum shrieking fits like a chimpanzee. The majority of her emotions are translated through this great physical use of her body and she definitely becomes a scene stealer. A similar highlighting moment of scene-stealing physicality comes from Salanio (Michael Boynton) during his mockery speech of Shylock. Boynton is flinging himself between the bench and the support beam, mimicking the Jew’s exasperation over his runaway daughter and the ducats she stole. He plays to the height of his character in this scene, exaggerating the confused passionate cries of the Shylock in such a comical way that it’s impossible not to laugh.

Heather Howard and Greg Burgess in ‘Merchant of Venice.’ Photo by: Teresa Castracane.

The other eye-catching actor who appears to have more energy than play time – is James Jager as Gratiano. Jager is exuberant and alive with every racing step he takes in the space. He scrambles with manic urgency, delivering each line with a frantic sense of importance. He channels his soaring spirit through the space with wild facial expressions and superior control over his words, though at times they are made in haste, and adds a great level of comedy to his characters. His versatility in the role is astounding as he goes from spastic jokester to humbled and angry defender in the courtroom – the words barked after Shylock delivered so fiercely that he is almost unrecognizable as himself in that moment. Shylock (Greg Burgess) makes quite the impression though not as much through his physicality. Burgess creates a stunning dichotomy between the notion of an appalling monster and an innocent man tormented. We see both the stock character; conniving, plotting, and sinister – and the more subtle desperate side of Shylock, a man tortured and driven to inhumanity. Burgess flips so easily between the two, blending these strong-willed characters together so that at any given moment the audience must pity and hate him simultaneously. Burgess delivers a riveting performance of a villainous character with deep seeded compassion and execution of malevolence – at a level of heightened emotionality well perceived by all.

The relationships developed throughout the show are strong, well presented, and solidly crafted. Antonio (Scott Alan Small) makes perhaps the best show of this in a non-romantic way with his brotherly love toward Bassanio (Matthew Sparacino.) These two men make profound light of their friendship, hearty pats on the back, even their familiar tone when addressing the troubles that woe them the most – love. Small creates other warm and friendly moments with the characters he interacts with, save for Shylock (Burgess) with whom he quarrels obnoxiously and mean-spiritedly. We find beautiful moments of blossoming young love in the three couples that take to the scene. First we have Bassanio (Matthew Sparacino) and Portia (Heather Howard.) Their words imply simple discourse, later laced with notes of romance but their vocal undertones make their flirting more than apparent and incredibly enjoyable. Howard lays Sparacino to his place upon confronting him over the ring while trying to maintain her serious countenance. The couple interact well together and create a picturesque understanding of romance.

The same can be said of Gratiano (James Jager) and Nerissa (Chelsea Mayo.) While Jager’s gestures are a bit more provocative and sexually expressive his chemistry with Mayo is a saucy love of handmaids and lesser men. Their interactions are the cause of a few good laughs throughout the show. And I would be remiss if I did not mention sweet Jessica (Molly Moores) and her lover Lorenzo (Vince Eisenson.) The most romantic moment in the show burgeons between the shared bosom of these two young lovers. Moores folds easily into the arms of Eisenson under the paper lantern moonlight and gold Christmas light strings of stars. They dote upon one another with simple words while their eyes and whispered tones belay deep feelings of gracious love. A true romantic comedy unfolds throughout these actors’ precious moments in the play space.

So be sure not to miss this entertaining presentation of The Merchant of Venice. You’ll feel like the Bard just brought you into his world.

Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.

The Merchant of Venice plays select dates through March 24, 2012, at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Oliver’s Carriage House – 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia MD. For tickets, call (410) 313-8661, or purchase them online.