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Prenzies' ‘Merchant' production makes Shakespeare relevant today

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Prenzies' ‘Merchant' production makes Shakespeare relevant today
Maggie Woolley plays the rich heiress Portia in Prenzie Players' "The Merchant of Venice." (Contributed photo)

The acting begins before the audience steps into the Village Theater. Andy Koski (Antonio) and Stephanie Moeller (Salarina) are stationed on the sidewalk leading to the theater in the Village of East Davenport, dressed in church clothes with Koski holding a Bible.

The two try to convince play-goers not to attend the production because of its lewd language and situations. When you brush by them, Koski says he’ll pray for you.

The odd exchange sets the stage for the plot of Shakespeare’s classic play, which is driven mostly by the actions of religious extremists and the prejudice that results.

Shylock (Aaron Sullivan) is a Jewish money lender who provides a loan to Antonio so his friend Bassanio (J.C. Luxton) can woo the rich heiress Portia (Maggie Woolley). However, because Antonio, a Christian, has done and said many hateful things to Shylock because of his religion, Shylock demands that Antonio pay with a pound of flesh should he default on the loan.

Confident that his ships will arrive on time with the goods he needs to sell to repay the loan, Antonio agrees. The action that follows is all linked to the conflict between the characters and their religions.

The turning point comes when Luxton’s character delivers a heartfelt monologue in a scene during which he has to choose one of three caskets in a lottery to decide whether he shall marry Portia. The caskets are made of gold, silver and lead. We already know from two previous suitors — who chose gold and silver because of their outer appearance — that the correct choice containing the image of Portia is in the lead casket.

In his monologue, Bassanio examines the outer shells and realizes that the exterior form is not a reflection of what lies inside, so he correctly chooses lead, allowing him to marry Portia.

Conflict, of course, continues to ensue because all of Antonio’s ships crash, causing him to default on his loan, and Bassanio returns for a court case to determine whether Shylock will indeed get his pound of flesh.

In addition to using the play to portray the conflict that religious extremism can cause, the Prenzie Players added a homosexual relationship between Bassanio and Antonio. It is introduced at the beginning of the play when the two share a passionate kiss, and it continues in the courtroom scene when Bassanio declares he would rather give his life in place of Antonio’s because his friend is so dear to him.

This relationship, while a noble attempt to include the societal problems created because of prejudices against homosexuality, doesn’t fit. It makes no sense that Bassanio and Antonio would share a passionate exchange one moment and then, in the very next instant, discuss plans to obtain a loan so Bassanio can court Portia.

I did enjoy the conversion of two of Antonio’s male friends from Shakespeare’s original to female characters. The dynamic of a co-ed group of friends was a wise choice for this update, which appears to be set in the present, judging by the characters’ clothing.

Angela Rathman and James Palagi, who play several minor characters, and Karl Bodenbender, who plays the piano on stage, are scene-stealers. In particular, Rathman engages in a frenzied argument between good and evil as Guenevere Gobbo decides whether to leave the service of Shylock and work for Bassanio instead. Rathman’s two sides are represented by a Barbie dressed as an angel and another clad in a slutty little outfit. When evil wins, she tosses the angel out a side entrance.

Palagi also creates a highlight playing one of Portia’s suitors when he opens the silver casket to find “the portrait of a blinking idiot.” He displays extreme confusion and then turns his back to the audience, still staring into the “portrait” to reveal a mirror.

Bodenbender is hilarious as he enters when asked to give a performance in the middle of the night, his hair sticking up in the worst case of bedhead known to man, and then proceeds to perform a beautiful piano solo.

The Prenzie Players make good use of simple set to create distinct points of reference such as Shylock and Portia’s homes and Antonio’s office by using exits and a platform in the audience seating area as additional stage space, creating seamless transitions between scenes and locations with minimal set changes and props.

IF YOU GO

What: The Prenzie Players present “The Merchant of Venice”

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24, Saturday, Oct. 25, and Sunday, Oct. 26

Where: The Village Theater, 2113 11th St., Davenport

How much: $8

Information: (563) 326-7529

On the Web: www.prenzieplayers.com

Stephanie De Pasquale can be contacted at (563) 333-2639 or sdepasquale@qctimes.com. Comment on this review at qctimes.com.

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