Spotlight: The Merchant of Venice

Eight actors tackle eighteen roles in this stripped-down CalibanCo production of The Merchant of Venice, a show that frequently transcends its low-budget production values with a number of engaged performances. Shakespeare's familiar set-up has Bassanio (Ryan Kathman) trying to borrow money from Anthonio (Jeremiah Stich) in order to squire the lovely and available Portia (Brandon Williams). Anthonio is temporarily cash-poor, so he borrows the dough from Shylock (Shawn Hoffman), a moneylender and, famously, a Jew. Hoffman growls with pent-up malice and booms Shakespeare's dialogue with precision. Along the way, he makes Shylock's case that he might not be such a wretch if everyone didn't insist on calling him "Jew" all the time, as well as remarking on his canine qualities. Director Jared Reise has placed the action in a quasi-Jazz Age setting, though wisely the concept is soft-pedaled. Williams provides a welcome note of sassy mischief throughout, and Kathman stands out as the romantic hero as well as an over-the-top turn as one of Portia's series of ridiculous suitors. A funny interlude places Shylock on a golf course, whacking unseen balls while everyone makes cruel sport of him, making light of his daughter Jessica (Kathy Kupiecki) running off with her lover. By the time we reach the final scenes, essentially a courtroom drama in which Shylock tries to extract his pound of flesh from the stoic Anthonio, Hoffman works himself into an impressive lather, and he captures Shylock's final debasement with painful tones. There are missteps along the way--a couple of musical numbers probably should have been left on the drawing board, for the cast does not make one yearn for them to tackle a musical any time in the future--but the players manage a real sense of cohesion, presence, and purpose.