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Monday, November 21, 2016

Faction of Fools Merchant of Venice



I just saw The Merchant of Venice production at Gallaudet University by Faction of Fools — a Commedia dell’Arte theatre company in Washington, D.C.

If you are anywhere near Washington, you can not miss this extraordinary production — it’s hilarious!

The show runs through 11 December — so please order your tickets soon!



I am not a professional theatre critic, but I would love to share some of my thoughts with you about this wonderful show.

Two years ago, I saw Titus Andronicus by Faction of Fools (my review). After having seen Merchant yesterday, I think Faction of Fools makes a very convincing case that Commedia dell’Arte just might be the best and only way to perform Shakespeare.

The Merchant of Venice is my favourite Shakespeare play. It is the funniest play he ever wrote, and the most politically incorrect — in a good way.

Most of what makes the play so side-splittingly funny has been lost over time. Today it is too often performed without any real understanding of what the play is, and what the play should be.

So, it is so exciting to see this production that really understands how absurd the play really is. The Commedia dell’Arte performance style perfectly suits this farcical and screwball comedy.

There are many screwballs in this play, and Faction of Fools really truly understands how to throw them. The audience yesterday with me laughed loud and laughed often.

I have just never seen such a funny Merchant of Venice

Here is a quick video that captures some of the madcap comedy:



Director Paul Reisman has done something truly extraordinary. He has taken Shakespeare’s most problematic “problem play” and made it fun to watch.

Mr. Reisman and his stellar cast have created a truly entertaining play, that never slows down and makes you laugh all the way through.

The cast deserves so much praise. They throw themselves into their roles with so much energy and love of the play and the language that it really immerses you — I couldn’t believe how quickly 2 hours flew by, especially when you consider the fact that almost the entire text of the play is retained.

Each and every member of the cast deserves great credit. They all double up and triple up (and sometimes quadruple up) the roles. 

The fact that they could change costumes in a split-second and come back on as another character is remarkable. If there was an Olympic athletics event for actors, I think they would win the Gold.

They do something that is quite extraordinary. They let loose with each of their characters with so much abandon, with so much love of the play, that the whole play is lifted and elevated. I truly think this is the closest this play has come to its original staging. This is what it may have looked like circa 1596.

The other extraordinary thing about this great cast of actors is that they each steal the show and upstage each other constantly. It is not uncommon to be looking at one actor when the other actors are meant to be front and center. 

If ever there was a company of actors that made you want to see the same show twice (or even three times) it is this one!


Natalie Cutcher is phenomenal as Portia. 

She has that rarest of talents, when it comes to performing Shakespeare. To “suit the action to the word, the word to the action” sounds easy. But it is up to every single actor to find and create the body language that suits Shakespeare’s written dialogue.

Ms. Cutcher found that body language for Portia, and therefore translated Shakespeare’s language more effectively than I thought possible.

Did I mention that she's funny? Her contortions during Bassanio’s casket test is priceless. Portia as Balthasar is a laugh riot. I loved her exaggerated “manly stride”.

Matthew Pauli is the most extraordinary Shylock I have ever seen.

It is almost inconceivable to me that any actor could deliver such a powerful performance — especially considering that he was in a mask the whole time!

He breathes so much life into this misunderstood character, the most enigmatic character in Shakespeare’s entire canon. There is so much complexity to Shylock, and Mr. Pauli is terrific at exploring all of the nuance.

And this is by far the funniest Shylock I have ever seen. Shylock is far too often played as gloomy and grave, when in fact he is one of the most lively and three-dimensional characters he ever created. Mr. Pauli understands this very well.

Vince Eisenson as Bassanio with Matthew Pauli as Shylock

There is so much I could say about each and every single one of the other actors, they are all so unusually good. And as good as every one of them is, together they are even more fantastic as an ensemble.

Vince Eisenson is a terrific Bassanio. I especially love the casket scene, which will make your head spin with laughter. He also perfectly underplays Tubal. I didn’t think Tubal could make you laugh, but I was wrong.

Daniel Flint is the most foolish Gratiano I can remember, and the best Morocco I’ve seen. It is hard to believe that Gratiano, the most unlikeable character in the play, could be funny, but Mr. Flint makes him funny.

Ben Lauer plays Lorenzo, Aragon and the Duke. It is his heartfelt and sincere Lorenzo that I liked the most, and his chemistry with Alexseyia McBride as Jessica was superb. 

Ms. McBride, who is deaf, signs her dialogue. I think it improves the play. Her performance was far more eloquent without spoken lines. I especially liked her in the “in such a night” scene.

Teresa Spencer plays Salanio and Old Gobbo. But it is her Nerissa that is so wonderful. It is so playful and funny, and the chemistry between her and Ms. Cutcher as Portia is fantastic. I especially love her as in the trial scene, as she plays a man. Great moustache!

Ryan Tumulty is easily the best Antonio I’ve ever seen. But it is his Launcelot Gobbo that is so remarkable. It is one of the most underappreciated roles in Shakespeare’s canon, but in this version he is a star. The fiend/conscience is a critical moment in the play, and he just nails it.

I wholeheartedly recommend this play, for anyone who loves Shakespeare, and for anyone who doesn’t. You won’t be sorry.

Merchant is a very special play for me. It is the play that made Shakespeare take over my life, and sent me on my continuing adventure to solve his life and plays. 

I avoid seeing it anymore. I just don’t enjoy watching the play much any longer, since it is so misunderstood. I couldn’t even sit through the recent Shakespeare’s Globe production because they so mutilated the play.

But Faction of Fools restored a great deal of the joy that I have when I think about this play. 

No, they did not solve the play as I have. They do not understand the sexuality in the play, including the fact that Bassanio and Antonio are more than just dear friends. 

Yes, Ms. Cutcher plays Portia as a hot mess, but I do wish she made this princess the racist swine she really is. The name “Portia” means “pig” for a reason.

They do not understand how Shylock is not the villain, but rather the hero of the play. The unfortunate effect of this is the problem of anti-Semitism in the play is not satisfactorily resolved in this particular production.

The play is not anti-Semitic, nor was Shakespeare. Shakespeare loved the Shylock so much he named character after himself. Yes, “Shylock” means “Shakespeare”.

But the depiction of Shylock in this production is so funny, and human, that it makes up for much of their misunderstanding.

And I even got to play a small part as the County Palatine suitor to Portia. I always love it when the audience gets in on the act!

The trial scene

Whatever shortcomings in the production are more than made up for in the jubilant and thrillingly funny performances by these spectacular actors.

I do hope that you go see this play, and like me, you should make an effort to see every Faction of Fools production in the future.

Cheers,



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