Make Haste to the Fringe Festival and See Speed Merchant (of Venice)

A well-thought out, carefully orchestrated Speed Merchant (of Venice), based on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, is playing at Artworks Theatre as part of this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival. Directed by Action! Theatre Company artistic director, Tiger Reel, it is a provocative interpretation of the play – smart, contemporary, funny & challenging, and it even came in at exactly 90 minutes as the schedule said it would.

Reel’s beautiful prologue artfully addresses the long standing question of whether Bassanio and Antonio are lovers in a symbolic dance of changing partners that also establishes the tension between Venice’s Jews and Christians. Just as Antonio is left odd man out during the Godfather-esque waltz, so too is Shylock, the moneylender, left outside the final circle of citizens and made to endure the cruelty and belittlement of Antonio and his friends. It’s an incredibly effective and affecting way to begin the play. 

Terrific lighting and an especially appealing sound design give Speed Merchant a polished presence, especially for a Fringe production. The pre-show set-up ranges from a soulful melancholy introduction to a pensive more electronic soundscape with a bit of a techno influence and a subtle Island sway. Later, Reel turns the scenes with Portia’s (Vanessa Vaughn) suitors into a hilarious over-the-top game show, “The Lottery,” which could otherwise be called, “Who Wants To Marry a Portia?” complete with musical cues and sound effects.

Portia’s lady in waiting, Nerissa (Samantha Klein), plays a Vanna White hostess on steroids, who instructs the potential suitors to choose from a box made of either gold, silver, or lead to win her hand. If they choose which box contains her likeness, they will win her, and her substantial fortune. If they choose incorrectly, they agree to leave and never come to her again with a proposition of marriage.  The scenes poke fun at a number of recognizable game shows and their devices, and provide solid laughs (though I wonder that Nerissa always knows ahead of time which box the suitor will choose as she wears the correct key each time.)

Jon Weinberg gives an elegant performance as Antonio, who agrees to lend his friend Bassanio (David Hardie) 3000 ducats with which to woo the wealthy Portia. As his ships are all at sea, Antonio ends up borrowing the money from Shylock (Jack Young), who jokingly proposes that the bond be a pound of flesh to be forfeited nearest his heart if he should default on the loan. Though Bassanio is uncomfortable with the terms, the men agree, for what chance is there that the bond will be called due. What chance indeed…

There are many reasons to see this production at the Fringe, but the main reason is Jack Young’s performance as Shylock. The University of Houston acting professor gives him an astounding range of colors filled with nuances that allow us to understand and sympathize with him, especially early in the play. In one of his most compelling scenes he expresses his heart-breaking anguish at his daughter’s betrayal. It is this single event that transforms him into the bitter, vengeful man who demands his pound of flesh when Antonio’s ships are declared lost. Watching him funnel his rage at the man who is in his debt and now at his mercy is quite amazing.

Speedy scene changes are done with a sly wink to the audience and though some of the supporting actors are a little rough around the edges (line flubs were noticeable on Saturday afternoon), it isn’t enough to detract from the overall impact of the production. Speed Merchant (of Venice) is clever, sexy, and as satisfying as it is disturbing. I highly recommend you see it.

Remaining performance are June 22, 23 & 24 at Artworks Theatre, 6567-6585 Santa Monica Blvd. Click Here for tickets and more information.


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