Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Merchant of Venice, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

(Robert Hawkes as Shylock, brandishing his flesh extractor.)

Everyone loves a good courtroom scene where clever arguments are launched, the tables are turned and the bad guy comes up a loser. And with all due respect to Perry Mason and the books of John Grisham, nobody has ever done it better than Shakespeare, in his climactic scene in The Merchant of Venice.

Shylock argues, persuasively if not compassionately, for his “pound of flesh” from Antonio, and Antonio’s lawyer (Portia in disguise) at first agrees with Shylock and then attacks with telling legalities. And it’s all done with style in this Ohio Shakespeare Festival production, directed with brisk assuredness by Terry Burgler.

Trouble is, it’s not very easy to identify who the real bad guys are, in the court or elsewhere. And that’s a good thing. Indeed, nothing about this play has ever been easy, since it’s a romantic comedy in which the most compelling character, the Jewish usurer Shylock, is written as a monster with what many have claimed are definite anti-Semitic touches by the playwright. Are you laughing yet?

In the keystone role of Shylock, Robert Hawkes is the anti-Pacino, portraying a soft-spoken man with slumped shoulders and gentle gestures, but hardened by a spine composed of hardened, annealed anger. Hawkes’ Shylock is wedded to the hate he has developed over years of religious discrimination in Venice, and he wears it comfortably. And that makes his stubborn insistence on vengeance, by legally carving up Antonio, even more disturbing than if he were ranting and foaming.

Meanwhile, the humorous side of the play is handled with dispatch. As Portia, the rich heiress who is continually auditioning potential mates, Lara Knox is as enticing as she is clever. She is attended by Nerissa (Tess Burgler), a woman who adds her own layer of witty commentary. The scene when two hapless prince/suitors (Derrick Winger and Mark Stoffer) try to select the right treasure chest and thereby win the hand of Portia is a delight. 

The merchant in the title, Antonio, is given a solid if not particularly magnetic treatment by David McNees, and Joe Pine makes Bassanio a very sympathetic suitor for Portia.

Inevitably, the comedy and drama sometimes clash—it’s hard to chuckle about the "missing ring" lark after Shylock has been divested of his money and property and forced to become a Christian(!). Especially if you view him, justifiably, as more victim than perp.

It all just gives you more to haggle about on your trip home from Stan Hywet. But make sure, on your trip there, to leave early enough to see the Greenshow, directed by Ms. Burgler, that starts a half-hour before curtain. This time, the featured piece is a mash-up of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, complete with finger cymbals. It’s a hoot.

The Merchant of Venice
Through August 19, produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron, 330-673-8761,

Friday, August 3, 2012

One Night with Janis Joplin, Cleveland Play House

(Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin)

If you ever want to replicate the singing voice of Janis Joplin, at home in your spare time, it’s easy. Just have a friend tie your ankles to the bumper of a car and have him pull you slowly through a long, shallow pit filled with broken bottles, fish hooks and angry wasps. Just remember, while you’re screaming, to stay on tune and on beat.

Then again, you might just prefer to listen to someone else do it, and do it splendidly, in One Night with Janis Joplin, now at the Cleveland Play House. This is CPH’s second bite of the Joplin apple, having produced Love, Janis back in 1998. The new production is the world premiere of an entirely different touring show created, written and directed by Randy Johnson.

While the previous show may have had more heart, as it was built around the real letters Janis wrote to her family and friends, the current effort has plenty to recommend it.

 First, of course, is the person playing Janis: Mary Bridget Davies. Initially slated as the understudy in the production, Davies stepped in a day before opening and is ripping the hide off the ball, as they say.

This isn’t a surprise, since Davies performed as Janis in the earlier show (along with a couple other performers) and tours with Joplin’s signature band, Big Brother & the Holding Company. Davies channels many of Joplin’s stage mannerisms and brings a quarry-load of gravel to her vocal riffs.

Many of JJ's key songs are here, including “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” “Ball and Chain,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” (Sadly, there’s no “Get It While You Can,” the climactic song in Love, Janis.) And Davies throws herself onto the pyre of each of these sizzling tunes, screeching out the soulful loneliness and driving passion that made Joplin an icon of the 1960s.

Much of the show is structured around Joplin’s musical influences such as Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. These blues singers are played and sung by the sublime Sabrina Elayne Carten, who swings assuredly from an operatic turn on “Summertime” to full-tilt rock mode in Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark.” The two lead singers and two backups are supported by an eight-person rock band, with horns, that captures the sound and spirit of these memorable songs. 

The production is also visually captivating as it's performed within a welter of pinpoint lights, homey little lamps, crazily pivoting searchlights, furled lavender chiffon and gleaming structural steel. That set and lighting, which serves as a pretty accurate metaphor for Janis herself, is designed by Justin Townsend. There is also a video screen in the background where photos of Janis' paintings are projected (to mixed effect), along with groovy patterns and images from the era.

While the show’s music is loud, brash and intoxicating—it is virtually impossible not to stand up and join in as Davies and company rock out—the script only pays lip service to the superstar’s inner demons and desires. As a result, the eventual reference to her death, at the young age of 27 from a drug overdose, seems more of a cold biographical detail here than a tragedy.

But if you love Janis, or if you want to introduce someone to her particular brand of psychedelic magic, you could do much worse than this production.

One Night with Janis Joplin
Through August 19, produced by the Cleveland Play House, Arena Stage and One Night Productions, at the new Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000