Telluride REP's Merchant of Venice opened Saurday night

Telluride REP's Merchant of Venice opened Saurday night

IMGP1428 After a five-year hiatus, the Telluride Repertory Theatre at last was able to bring back Shakespeare in the Park. "Merchant of Venice" opened Saturday night. 7:30 p.m. on the Main Stage in Telluride Town Park. Performances continue Wednesday, August 25 – Sunday, August 29. (The performance on Saturday, August 28, however, is a 1 p.m. matinee.)

Local actor-turned-director Jeb Berrier's choice of "The Merchant of Venice" to relaunch one the REP's most popular series was a bit like deciding to run a marathon after an extended illness. The material in this dark comedy is challenging to say the least, dealing as it does with racial profiling in the person of Shylock, whom the Bard portrays in a somewhat grotesque, anti-Semitic caricature. Shakespeare, however, specializes in shades of gray, begging the question: Is Shylock meant to be victim or villain?

Buff Hooper's Shylock straddled that fence with impressive dexterity, one minute, molten with rage; the next, melting in sorrow and regret. A pitch perfect, compelling performance.

IMGP1427 Shylock's foil is Portia, representing temptation, pity and ultimately redemption. Portia counters Shylock's "eye for an eye" with the kinder, gentler  "forgive and you will be forgiven." The female lead is Kelsey Patterson, whom we first saw playing the wife in "This Isn't What It Looks Like," a joint venture between The REP and the Telluride Playwrights Festival. In both plays, Patterson proved herself to be a commanding presence on stage. The spotlight inevitably finds her lovely face in the crowd and we, the audience, get to discover her native intelligence and chops.

IMGP1429 Berrier chose not to allow the depiction of Shylock and the knotty questions that surround him (and Portia) to completely overwhelm the moments of comic interlude that are part and parcel of almost all Shakespearian plays. In this choice, Berrier was blessed with the presence of New York-based actress Layna Fisher, who happened to be in town for the summer. In truth, Fisher is so good, there were moments when "Merchant" became "The Layna Fisher Show." ( I am not spilling the beans. You'll have to see the show.) Fisher seamlessly blends schtick with Commedia dell-Arte physicality to create moments of unadulterated delight that offset the bitter pill the audience is asked to swallow with regard to the usurer.

IMGP1425 Antonio (Jesse James Martin), the noble Venetian, and Bassiano, Portia's suitor (Eliot Muckerman), the remaining leads, were convincing in their portrayal of idealized male friendship.

The supporting cast was a mixed bag of acting veterans and total newbies, including some young people who acted, sang and danced to the delight of the crowd. The newbies all have a long way to grow, but everyone gets an "A" for effort.

Rather than turning "The Merchant of Venice" into a morality tale, in the end, Berrier decided to follow the Bard's trail of words without the slightest deviation from the well-trod path. Berrier's streamlined "Merchant" (the minimal sets are terrific) is filled with a rogue's gallery of complex personalities, possessing the wide range of traits that make up Everyman (and woman). Some likable. Some vile. The cast entirely reflects Venetian society then – and aspects of our society now. In this context, Shylock is the heart and soul of the money-drunk world he both serves and loathes. (In effect, he is the one with the hangover.)

Seating for "The Merchant of Venice" is limited to 60 per night as we are all on the stage. Warm clothes are recommended. Show happens rain or shine. The audience is on the Main Stage with the actors and under cover.

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