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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

First Folio’s entry into the 4th annual Bardfest program is William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – a rather pithy tale of love and vengefulness. Directed by Doug Powers, and presented on a very bare stage setting, a well-prepared cast puts on a very enjoyable and meaningful entertainment.

Bassario Antonio

from left: Zach Taylor as Bassanio, and Ryan Ruckman as Antonio in a scene from First Folio Production’s “The Merchant of Venice”

The story is thus: Merchant Antonio is devoted to his friend, the nobleman Bassanio – albeit in this interpretation, he is a bit more than merely devoted. When Bassanio comes to Antonio with a need for funding to pursue the heiress Portia of Belmont, Antonio sets a deal by which he will back any loan that his friend might procure. In his desperation, Bassario gets the loan from Shylock, a Jew who is not well thought of in Venice, especially by Antonio. The agreement for the loan requires that Shylock, if Antonio defaults, will acquire a pound of flesh from near the heart of Antonio as settlement of the unpaid loan. Antonio agrees, although he hates the Jew, for his friend’s sake. Funds in hand, Bassanio goes to Belmont, succeeds in gaining Portia’s hand, but soon finds that Antonio’s merchant ships have all been lost, leaving him destitute. Very dismayed, he tells his new wife of the situation, then leaves for Venice to support his friend. Wise Portia devises a secret solution to the problem, acts on it dressed as a man (good old Shakespeare loved cross-dressing his male actors playing females to be females acting as males), and saves the day – defeating and humiliating the vindictive Shylock in court.

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from left: Ryan Reddick as Shylock and Emily Bohn as Portia in First Folio Productions’ “The Merchant of Venice”

Director Powers is fortunate to have collected a fine group of Shakespearean actors for his project. Especially notable in leading roles are Ryan Ruckman and Zach Taylor as the confident Antonio and faithful Bassanio, respectively; Ryan Reddick as a fairly sympathetic, though vengeful, Shylock; and Emily Bohn as the resourceful Portia. Fine supporting work is done by Pat Mullen as Launcelot, Amanda Boldt as Nerissa, and Dwuan Watson Jr as the debonair Prince of Morocco.

The story-telling itself, always a challenge with Shakespearean language, is clear for the most part. All the players give nicely interpreted accounts of their character’s contributions to the tale, most with great usage of hands and expressions. The most common bug-a-boo is one I run across often in watching Shakespeare’s works – the lack of e-NUN-ci-A-tion. Many actors, such as Mr. Reddick, Mr Watson, or Mr. Mullen, never waver in their work to have each word distinctly communicated. Many others go in and out of the zone, falling prey to a lack of precision in their speech. This can and should be corrected.

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Pat Mullen as Launcelot in First Folio Productions’ “The Merchant of Venice”

My only other misgiving to this effort at mounting this difficult play, is that it is perhaps “under-edited”. That is to say: some speeches could have been cut down further, some eliminated altogether, to make what is a monstrously long work in the original, even more pared down for the modern audience. Several scenes go on and on and there is questionable value for the inclusion of all they are in the storyline. I realize that this may just be a matter of my own taste for the script as it was edited and played – so be it.

Bottomline: This hard-working group of producers, directors and players have wrought a fine version of one of the Bard’s most famous plays. Heavy on antisemitism as it is, I believe it reflects a time gone by, illustrating, as many older plays and films that deal with intolerance do, how far we have come as a society in our acceptance of each other’s differences.

The Merchant of Venice continues at the Indy Fringe Theatre through October 7th. Go to this link for further info on dates, times and reservations for the show.

  • – Photos by Matt Wall
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