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Review: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at Faction of Fools

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Audiences can usually expect something distinct, and full of chutzpah, from the folk at DC’s scrappy Faction of Fools theater troupe with its Comedia dell’Arte mission. The recipient of the 2012 Helen Hayes John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company, is now taking on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice with abundantly bold self-confidence.

Pictured (L to R): Teresa Spencer, Matthew Pauli, Ben Lauer, Natalie Cutcher, Ryan Tumulty, Daniel Flint, and Vince Eisenson.

Pictured (L to R): Teresa Spencer, Matthew Pauli, Ben Lauer, Natalie Cutcher, Ryan Tumulty, Daniel Flint, and Vince Eisenson. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Since even a synopsis of The Merchant of Venice can be fraught by the choice of words to describe the plot and characters (and I presume so many know the Merchant)  let me just provide these links to the Folger Shakespeare Library for a quick look at the full play and synopsis.

Faction of Fools takes on The Merchant of Venice and the production is filled with fine, illuminating, very praise-worthy performances. The high quality Faction of Fools acting is from a cast of about 8, including five who are listed as Actor’s Equity Membership Candidates. Whether in feature roles or in the ensemble, the performances are sharp, snappy, comic and when needed, barbed, and severe. This is no Merchant to quickly dismiss because you have seen it many times, or know the dialogue or think getting to the Gallaudet venue is a chore (which it isn’t and there is plenty of free parking).

Standout featured performances include Matthew Pauli’s Shylock. Pauli works as a masked character and is able to give prickly verbal nuance to his dialogue. He is much more than the usual stock Comedia dell’Arte “old man” or “miser” presence.

Then there is the key non-masked Natalie Cutcher as the rich heiress Portia who ultimately saves the day in the play. Cutcher provides a well-determined, nicely-accomplished authority to her Portia. She also is terrific in her many comic moments as when she influences her suitor Bassanio (Vince Eisenson) so they end up as a married couple.

There is a bright sunny delight to her face when doing comedy. As Antonio the merchant needing saving, Ryan Tumulty presents a honed early bravado that becomes a melancholy, brave-face as things look dark for him.

As Shylock’s daughter Jessica, Faction of Fools newcomer Alexseyia McBride (Gallaudet second year student who uses ASL on stage) makes an earthy presence for the daughter who abandons her father to marry a Christian while taking along some of Shylock’s most prized possessions.

The Faction of Fools ensemble of actors also bring heightened attention and awareness to the sometimes overlooked Merchant characters. These are the characters who can be hidden under the often pervasive dramatic goings-on because they are bumbling or a “mere” comic presence (Teresa Spencer and Daniel Flint are a lively lovely hoot together), or full of pratfalls (Ryan Tumulty is double-cast and well plays Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo). But not in this Faction of Fools production.

The Fools’ Merchant of Venice also includes all the beloved Comedia dell’Arte handsomely-wrought masks, apparent, quite delightful improvisations, top-flight physical comedy, with recognizable character “types” such as lovers wanting to be couples, wily servant, greedy people and many the well-placed use of American Sign Language by some of the actors on stage and those doing the translation for the audience.

As Director Paul Reisman stated in the show’s program notes:

Comedy is context here. So sit back and enjoy this play. Laugh even when you shouldn’t. Question your assumptions. Adapt. 

The director also noted that the play “was funny“ along with “moments of ambiguity and darkness.” And “the play is complicated, as was the world it was written in. But we shouldn’t’ shy away from it nor should we judge it.”

I was impressed at the untapped amount of comedy that Director Reisman excavated from this Shakespearean treasure, but with these iconic and powerful and frightening lines still remaining in this new adaptation –  in light of this past week’s election results and the dark tone of this year’s campaign  still burning in my brain – I had a very difficult time sitting back, enjoying the play, and laughing when I shouldn’t have:

“Hath not a Jew eyes?” Shylock

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d.” Portia

I wanted to be ‘moved’ more. I wanted more reactions at the drama while still enjoying the heightened comic work. I wanted more balance. In this production, Shylock seemed to accept his fate without much push-back.

There are nicely rendered period costumes from Lynly Saunders and music sprinkled through-out the show composed by Jesse Terrill. The Merchant of Venice set design by Daniel Flint gives the audience the strong impression that they are partaking of a play, with its fabricated proscenium stage appearance including oft-used curtains. Providing the ASL interpreting for the audience was Dr. Lindsey D. Snyder.

So, as the world concludes its celebration of the 400th Anniversary of Williams Shakespeare’s death and the 500th year of the establishment of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice – the ever-challenging The Merchant of Venice is ripe for and deserves the re-examination with the youthful ardor from the Faction of Fools.

This is an innovative new production that will leave you wanting to talk about it after you leave the theater. That is always a good-sign and the genius of great theater. Faction of Fools’ The Merchant of Venice will leave its mark on you.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

The Merchant of Venice plays through Sunday, December 11, 2016, at Faction of Fools Theatre Company performing at Gallaudet University’s Eastman Studio Theatre (Elstad Annex) – 800 Florida Avenue, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.

Note: Appropriate for ages 10 and up.

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