KPBS AIRDATE: July 22, 2005
Here’s a dramatic question: Is the victim of abuse obligated to offer mercy and forgiveness? It’s a difficult choice, especially if the wounds refuse to heal. In excellent productions of a classic and a modern play, the audience is discomforted, unnerved and emotionally drained as the protagonists equivocate in their moment of truth – and power.
In Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” the abuse is racial slur and slander, as Shylock the moneylender is repeatedly spat upon by the Merchant Antonio and his friends. In Mart Crowley’s 1996 “For Reasons that Remain Unclear,” the abuse is sexual.
After a lifetime of angst and an inability to love or trust, Patrick has cornered the priest who was responsible. In a taut, 80-minute game of cat-and-mouse, fraught with bitter humor and emotional tension, galvanic actor Jeffrey Jones circles around his prey and finally closes in, with surprise revelations of what happened years ago in a Mississippi Catholic school. The situation is a bit contrived, but Jones radiates restless energy and quick, sarcastic wit. There isn’t a false note in his mesmerizing performance. AS the priest, Jerry Phalen is stiff at first, but he crumples quite credibly. Like last year’s “Saturday Night at the Palace,” director Claudio Raygoza has again stretched an intense, timely play to its emotional limits.
Psychological intensity also runs high in the Poor Players production of “The Merchant of Venice,” one of Shakespeare’s most contentious works. Artistic director Richard Baird is devoted to making 400 year-old plays feel hip and relevant. Cellphones ring, and a car pulls up outside the open, industrial space that Baird uses to excellent advantage. His Shylock is a marvel of tangled motivations, a shabby immigrant whose unswerving principles cause him to lose everything — his daughter, his money and his religion. Baird heightens the Jewish themes, and in a stunning final moment, when Shylock’s daughter learns of her father’s fate, she drops to her knees and sings ‘Kol Nidre,’ the ancient Aramaic prayer that renounces all vows, sung on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. Baird is a mega-talent whose company isn’t always up to his level of skill or professionalism. But Beth Everhart is marvelous as the beautiful and cunning Portia, and Nick Kennedy does his best work as her beloved Bassanio, for whose friendship the merchant Antonio, played by John Tessmer as a dour depressive, borrowed the money that nearly costs him a pound of his flesh. It all culminates in a harrowing, knife-wielding courtroom scene.
With religious racism and church scandal splashing across the news every day, it’s easy to become detached and dispassionate. But good theater hurls you into the emotional maelstrom and forces you to engage, analyze and empathize.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.