Lionface stages controversial Shakespeare drama

Nerissa (left, performed by Katlin Schlegel) speaks with Portia (right, performed by Carlyn
Campbell) during a rehearsal of Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice" at City Park. (Photos:
Enoch Wu/Sentinel-Tribune)

Productions of "The
Merchant of Venice" nowadays always come with caveats.The play is the repository of some of
Shakespeare’s most soaring rhetoric, and enduring turns of phrase. These buttress a strong theme that
continues to resonate, dramatized by strong characters, including one of the Bard’s best women, Portia.Yet
"The Merchant of Venice" bears the stain of a nasty strain of anti-Semitism.Lionface Productions
stages the show, directed by Michael Portteus, unapologetically this weekend, opening tonight at 7 p.m. and
continuing with shows Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. on the outdoor stage of Needle Hall
in Bowling Green City Park.Lionface regular Joel Paine mitigates the racism with his strong performance as
Shylock. He lends him a brooding humanity, a gravity, stripped of stereotype. Shylock is bitter, and Paine
makes the viewer feel his hurt. He provides a service, rooted as he says in his tradition, much sought after
by Christians, and yet is taunted and called a dog for it.The most hectoring of these Christians is the
merchant Antonio (Ryan Albrecht). But his insult goes beyond taunting, he actually helps Shylock’s customers
avoid paying interest.So when Antonio in order to help his dear friend Bassanio (Griffin Coldiron) comes
into Shylock’s debt, the moneylender seeks his revenge. If the loan defaults he wants not interest but a
pound of Antonio’s flesh, and no amount of pleading for mercy will stay him from exacting his due.The
balance as Portia (Carlyn Campbell) says in her speech to the court, mercy is a higher virtue than justice,
since mercy comes to us all without expectation, while justice has a way of biting back on those who demand
it.

Launcelot Gobbo (right,
performed by Megan Koesters) guides father Old Gobbo (left, performed by Jerry Kowalski) during a rehearsal
of Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice".

The stark, resonant theme is surrounded by plenty of romance and comedy.Bassanio is seeking
the hand of rich heiress Portia, who has already dismissed suitors of all nationalities, invoking some
ethnic stereotypes at the expense of the Germans, French, English and Scottish along the way.She is a proud,
intelligent woman who disdains, often to the frustration of her friend and lady-in-waiting Nerissa (Katlin
Schlegel).Campbell and Schlegel revel in their scheming.The interplay between the lovers Lorenzo (Katie
Grilliot) and Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Allie Levine) is wonderfully affectionate and comic, as they fawn
and paw each other. Lionface never stints at showing Shakespeare bawdy side.The high comedy though is
reserved for Meghan Koesters’ Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock’s scheming, conflicted servant. Launcelot’s
two-minded debate with himself over whether he should stay or leave Shylock’s service is funny enough, but
when his father Old Gobbo ( Brigid Randolph) arrives, both blind and feeble of mind and body, the confusion
and comedy reaches a higher pitch.The cast is full of actors appearing in different guises, often different
gender, who serve to pull the performance together. Other members of the cast are Angelica Cooley, Lynette
Cooley, Sarah Hammye and Amanda Larsen.As usual for Lionface, the cast articulates Shakespeare’s rhetoric
with natural and clear enunciation so that it cuts through the background noise of a performance in the
park, the song of the cicada and the honking of the passing flock of geese.Campbell and Paine seem not at
all fazed by the burden of history as they deliver some of the most famous monologues in Western drama.
There’s the danger of treating Portia’s "the quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the
gentle rain from heaven" or Shylock’s "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" speeches like drum
solos. Instead they weave these into the texture of the narrative.In the end Shylock’s literal search for
justice is turned against him, and Antonio is spared. Then like a man on a rack, not a uncommon situation
for a Jew of the time, the wheels of justice are turned again and again and again against him, in a way
that’s hard to watch for its cruelty, breaking a man already warped and bent by prejudice.The lesson is
hard, but the message worth noting, justifying bringing "The Merchant of Venice" back to the
stage.