Review: Downtown Rep Revives THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

Downtown Rep - Merchant  of Venice
Within the courtyard of the historic Pico House in downtown LA, the Downtown Repertory Theater Company is in the midst of offering its sixth season of classical works. Led by artistic director Devon Armstrong, they have taken on Chekhov, Marlowe, Odets and numerous plays by Shakespeare, all while encouraging actors to tackle roles they might not otherwise have the opportunity to play.

The three story brick building makes a perfect setting for Shakespeare, with its picturesque arches, metal railings and balconies. It should, since it was originally built in 1869 by Don Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, who opened it as the first luxury hotel in LA. The back wall of the courtyard was also the site of the first theater in Los Angeles so it is fitting that it is once again used in that artistic capacity. It makes an especially beautiful setting for the company’s current production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Ivan Rivas and starring David Nathan Schwartz as Shylock. 

In it, Shylock agrees to lend Bassanio (Charlie Woods) 3000 ducats but holds his friend Antonio (James Clark) responsible to repay the loan or he will exact a pound of flesh if he cannot make payment on the agreed upon date. It contains some of Shakespeare most memorable speeches, among them Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” and Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?”

I was quite taken with Schwartz’s version of Shylock and the ease with which he handled the text. Tall and lanky, with an angular, almost pinched look about his face he is eccentric and at times even funny in his approach to the scenes. The light bulb moment when he is inspired to ask for a pound of flesh as payment is one of pure revelation and later he proves to be an exceedingly sympathetic character when he learns that his daughter Jessica (a very sweet Hilary J. Schwartz in a role that fits her well) has left him and taken with her a ring he prized above all else.

Dylan Diehl’s Portia is earthy and exotic and two comedic cameos by Greg Lynch, as the boorish Prince of Morocco, and Devon Armstrong, as the lisping Prince of Arragon, land with just the right punch. Appropriately, one wishes that Lynch would simply stop talking and that Armstrong would find some reason to stay and continue.

Many of the other characters use a declamatory style of speech, among them Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo (Willem Long), Gratiano (John Dimitri) and even Portia when in the disguise of the doctor. It is consistent within Rivas’ intellectual production but the recitations do not always allow the actors to connect with the audience as they should, leaving one with a generalized experience of the character rather than a more meaningful one.

Alison Korman’s costume design and set enhancements are a nice complement to the space’s Mediterranean feel, and add visual interest without taking away from the building’s natural charm. The production clocks in at about two hours and forty minutes, allowing for a slightly delayed curtain due to latecomers.

If you have not seen a production by Downtown Rep before I encourage you to check them out. Their Merchant of Venice resonates as strongly today as it did when it was first written and this passionate and dedicated troupe of players brings it to life with endless vitality.

Ellen Dostal
Shakespeare in LA

July 5 – 27, 2014
Downtown Repertory Theater Company
The Historic Pico House at Olvera Street
424 N. Main St.
Los Angeles, CA, 90012


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