So once again I ventured to Vancouver’s Shakespeare Festival known as Bard On the Beach. For four months the city and its guests get cultured in tents in a park by the beach.
Some people find The Bard intimidating so this year I am tackling my opinions on the shows for their benefit. If you want to go and are not sure which one you should see I will contrast and compare.
I have already done the shows in the big tent; The Winter’s Tale and Much Ado About Nothing so now we will look at the shows in the smaller tent; The Merchant of Venice and Two Gentleman of Verona.
I saw both these shows one month into the run and had already heard a lot about them, as a result I had expectations that were played with and coloured by enjoyment.
The Merchant of Venice is not a show I have enjoyed in the past. The anti-Semitic abuse that the moneylender Shylock receives, I have found problematic. I had heard that director Nigel Shawn Williams has modernized the setting and ratcheted up the prejudice so I was quite content to avoid it but a friend talked my into it.
The set by Marshall McHahen features three stone towers with windows in them. The modern and driving music by Patrick Pennefather’s electrifies the stage as some chrome furniture in placed by wonderfully well-dressed characters by designer Drew Facey.
The women have hair as big as their attitude and the men are as sharp as their suits. They are all out for themselves and the vibe reminds one of a nighttime soap opera – rich people behaving badly.
The central characters revolve around two main story lines that intersect at several points. Bassanio (Charlie Gallant, full of cocky swagger) needs to borrow money so his friend Antonio (Edward Foy, exuding confident privilege) strikes a deal with Shylock a man he a treated with derision. A deal is struck with an unexpected twist – default on the loan and Antonio has to forfeit one pound of his flesh.
The other story is Portia (Olivia Hutt, in a vibrant and layered performance), a smart and fair heiress who has to agree to a contest her father set up in order to marry.
A smaller side story concerns Jessica (Carmela Sison, with desperate need) daughter of Shylock how steals from her father and sneaks off to marry a man named Lorenzo (Chirag Naik, full of boastful bluster).
The stage is set for desperate measures and vengeful actions. The cruelty and anger that is dished out is visceral.
Warren Kimmel is simply brilliant as Shylock, full of fiery dignity and righteous indignation. His portrayal is incredibly grounded with such fire in the belly of the character that it gives the show its chief pleasure.
The script still leaves him in a bad place at the end but the directors has re-arranged some of the lines to at least give a message of understanding at the end.
I found the show riveting to watch, the way the scenes flowed into each other with sharp precision and haughty attitudes of the affluent characters made their shocking hatred more powerful and upsetting but also involving. It’s a bold show and I was surprised how much I was captured by it.
Two Gentleman of Verona is purported to be Shakespeare’s first play and it was a randy comedy about youthful men in love. The faithful and true Valentine and the more scrupulous Proteus. Proteus is devoted to Julia (a fiery Kate Besworth) and they exchange rings as he sets off with his friend travelling.
Valentine is in love with the beautiful Silvia (a regal Adele Noronha) but her father wants to marry someone else.
When Proteus sees Silvia be falls instantly in lust with her (poor Julia) and screws over his friend to win her (poor Valentine).
Also in the tale are two servants; Speed (an energetic Chirag Naik) and Launce (a twinkly but weary Andrew Cownden). The star of the show is Launce’s dog Crab, a real basset hound played by Gertie (who has their own You Tube series).
For this show the costumes are by Mara Gottler and they are more traditional looking and they vary from location to location. Some characters looking like Quakers and other like Pirates of the Caribbean.
The two gentlemen are full of youthful energy jumping about the stage while loudly proclaiming their lines, but there is something about their bombast that makes them less than involving.
Charlie Gallant as Proteus plays another cad like he did in Merchant and does so with wicked charm. Of note: it was interesting how in this play, like in Merchant, he wipes away a same-sex kiss in a homophobic way.
Nadeem Phillip plays Valentine with an aloof candor at times almost, as if the character was too cool to care (and sometimes coming off like he is a little bored) but in the final scenes he attacked with earnest energy that makes you start to like the character again.
Director Scott Bellis tackles the juvenile sexism that is inherit in the script by adding a scene at the end that Shakespeare did not write. It is a remarkable payoff and makes the whole production very rewarding.
I had heard a lot about this comedy and the initial reviews were so glowing that my expectations where really high. There is a reason Two Gentleman of Verona is not performed that often, it’s plot and characters are rather simple, amounting to “boys screws around and girls get hurt”. I found that it did make me laugh a lot as I sat judging the characters more then enjoying them. But I loved that dog and that ending!
The show has been popular with audiences and they have added extra performances of Two Gentleman of Verona.
But if I was to recommend one over the other I would suggest you check out Merchant of Venice, it is a shocking drama (the audience gasped in shock at one point) and it challenges you sometimes but it is always gripping and delicious to watch.
David C. Jones
Side Note: It was interesting to see how often Shakespeare used the same plot devices in different plays. In three of the four show a father goes off on his daughter railing against her virtue. Also in two of the shows men are exposed of the two timing nature due to a ring.
But in fairness Shakespeare had not know his plays would be staged in groupings of four when he wrote them so he likely thought he could get away with it.