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From The Buffalo News
By Colin Dabkowski
Published June 19, 2011
Morgan Walker/ Buffalo News
Seldom have humor and menace combined in such a potent brew as Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” a tale of improbable comedy in the face of fierce prejudice that opened the 36th season of Shakespeare in Delaware Park in grand fashion on Thursday night.
And this production, fraught with tension and loaded with deeply felt performances, achieved a rare immediacy that kept audience members on the hill utterly rapt across the play’s very fast three hours. This is no small task, as anyone who has slogged through lesser productions of outdoor Shakespeare can readily attest.
Director Brian Cavanagh has taken the straightforward approach. There’s no daring directorial concept at work here, just a sense that the cast was given enough time and space to grow comfortable in their characters’ often unsavory skins and to pay deep attention to the emotional thrust behind the play’s utterly spellbinding language.
The plot, for the uninitiated, goes like this:
The affable but poor Bassanio (Adriano Gatto) has an incurable thing for Portia (Susan Drozd), a smoking-hot young heiress hotly pursued by dukes and princes with tons of money but absolutely no game. Portia loves Bassanio, but she shall hath no scrubs, so Bassanio asks his main man Antonio, a Venetian merchant, to spot him some cash.
Antonio, in turn, makes the truly boneheaded move of borrowing the money from a spiteful Jewish moneylender by the name of Shylock (Saul Elkin), who has an ancient ax to grind against Antonio specifically and Christianity in general. Shylock lends the money with the grim caveat that if Antonio does not fully repay the debt within three months, he is entitled to a pound of of the merchant’s flesh. Think of Shylock as the godfather of predatory lending.
Bassanio, after going through an absurd ritual involving three locked boxes to win Portia’s hand—a sort of 14th-century mixture of “The Bachelorette” and “The Price is Right” — gets what he was after. But Antonio isn’t so lucky. After his ships are reported lost at sea, he forfeits his end of the bloody bargain, and things really start to heat up.
Elkin’s performance as Shylock is a study in withering condescension and untempered disgust, a chilling embodiment of the prejudices at the center of this play, the ways in which they draw on deep historical roots and seem doomed to propagate themselves endlessly.
Peter Palmisano, an actor who rarely disappoints in Shakespearean roles, brings Antonio, in all his affected honor and his own detestable prejudices, to brilliant life. As Bassanio, Gatto is the picture of affability and Drozd, as Portia, gives her character a confident and deeply appealing interpretation. David Autovino has some great comic moments, while the interplay between Chris Labanca as the clownish Launcelot and David Lundy as his father is more than a bit cute. A couple of glaring performances lag far behind the lot, but on the whole this cast deserves accolades for rendering their lines so deftly and with so much genuine feeling.
As usual, sound designer Tom Makar plays an indispensable role in establishing the play’s alternately lighthearted and deeply menacing tenor with a sound design that inserts itself into the play without ever making itself too apparent. He’s helped by the able lighting designer Chris Cavanagh, set designer Ron Schwartz and costumer designer Ken Shaw.
The result of all this is a “Merchant of Venice” that in some ways reduces the distance between 14th century Italy and 21st century Buffalo to a hair’s breadth. It makes it not just easy but utterly necessary for us consider just how far our prejudices have traveled since then and gives us an opportunity to reflect on the corrupting forces of dehumanization, revenge and redemption that sit at the play’s heart.
Interviews for Shakesperience, Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s high school apprenticeship program, are scheduled to be held on Saturday, April 30 from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the Shakespeare in Delaware Park office, 617 Main Street, Buffalo, NY.
Session I: Merchant of Venice will run from June 11 to July 10.
Session II: As You Like It will run from July 16 to August 14.
This season’s productions are:
Merchant of Venice
directed by Brian Cavanagh
June 16– July 10
As You Like It
directed by Eileen Dugan
July 21 – August 14
Shakesperience is open to area high school students; this program is designed to provide in-depth theatrical experience with theatre professionals. Each session runs for five weeks, beginning the week prior to regularly scheduled performances. Applicants will be required to participate in an enrollment interview on Saturday, April 30 between 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. In addition to attending theatre classes taught by local actress, director and theatre teacher Susan Drozd, students gain hands-on experience in a professional production as part of SDP technical crew and will perform on stage during the season productions and in a special student performance during the season.
Tuition is $400 per five-week session. Scholarships are available.
Applicants must call for an interview appointment. No interviews will be conducted on a walk-in basis.
For an appointment or further information call 856-4533.
Auditions for Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s 36th season will be held on February 19, 20 and 21.
Saturday, February 19th:
9am to 2pm – OPEN CALL
Sunday February 20th:
9am to 2pm – CALL BACKS for Merchant of Venice
Monday February 21st:
5pm to 9pm – CALL BACKS for As You Like It
Auditions will be held at The Market Arcade Building – 617 Main Street, Buffalo, NY 14203 (Please note this is NOT the Market Arcade “Movie” Complex. There is parking and entrance on Washington Street).
OPEN CALL AUDITIONS ARE BY APPOINTMENT ONLY. Everyone interested in being considered for the 2011 season must make an audition appointment. To arrange an appointment, please call (716) 856-4533, on or after February 7th (no audition appointments will be accepted before February 7th). Leave your name, phone number, date and approximate time you wish to audition. You will be called back with a confirmation of your audition time.
2011 Season productions include:
MERCHANT OF VENICE – June 16th through July 10th – Directed by Brian Cavanagh
AS YOU LIKE IT — July 21st through August 14th — Directed by Eileen Dugan
Actors should prepare one memorized, Shakespearean monologue, not to exceed 2 minutes. If you have played a “principal role” for Shakespeare in Delaware Park in the past you may not need to prepare a monologue, just call for information regarding a call back audition appointment. All Actors are requested to bring a resume/career bio and a head shot to the audition. The part of Shylock in MERCHANT OF VENICE has already been cast.
Shakespeare in Delaware Park (SDP) is pleased to announce the second production of the 2010 season of free professional outdoor theater. After a beautiful start to the 35th Anniversary season, the crowd pleasing Much Ado About Nothing closed Sunday July 11th entertaining record breaking audiences. Shakespeare in Delaware Park will now continue with Macbeth, featuring an all star female cast. This popular tragedy opens July 22nd and runs Tuesdays through Sundays until August 15th at 7:30pm. This all star cast features Kate Konigisor as Macbeth and Josie Divincenzo as Lady Macbeth. Both of these talented actresses are originally from the Buffalo area, who moved to further their acting careers in New York City and California. SDP is honored to have both ladies return to the SDP stage for this exciting production. .
Macbeth also stars: Pamela Mangus, Katie White and Lisa Vitrano. Directed by Eileen Dugan, fight choreography by Steve Vaughn, costume design by Dixon Reynolds and set design by Lynne Koscielniak and Dyan O’Connell . As a “must-see summer event,” Shakespeare in Delaware Park reaches more than 40,000 audience members each year and is proud to be celebrating 35 incredible years of high-quality professional theatre which remains FREE for the public to enjoy.
Shakespeare in Delaware Park performances are held every evening (except Mondays) at 7:30 p.m. Shows take place on Shakespeare Hill in Delaware Park, next to Hoyt Lake behind the Rose Garden, off Lincoln Parkway near the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Thirty five years ago Saul Elkin had an idea to set a Shakespearean play amongst the beautiful foliage of Delaware Park . Though that particular run was successful, he never dreamed that he was about to embark on this artistic journey for over three decades. Today Shakespeare in Delaware Park is the nation’s second largest free outdoor Shakespeare festival, second only to New York City. It attracts over fifty thousand audience members yearly and continues to grow in popularity. “Thirty five years have been a gift,” stated Elkin in a recent interview.
When Elkin first came to Buffalo, he was certainly not a novice in the professional theatre. He already held graduate degrees from Columbia and Carnegie Melon universities, performed on and off Broadway, and was hired as the Theatre Department Chairperson at University of Buffalo. His genius, passion and drive are the qualities that propelled Shakespeare in Delaware Park to the cultural institution it is today.
This year Elkin opened the season with William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which runs until July 11 before it makes way for the second show of the season, Macbeth. About a half hour before the show opened, he graciously spoke with me about his views on theatre, directing and education. His love of the art is clearly a direct reflection for his love of life. “I don’t feel any older,” he laughed. And then he got a twinkle in his eye when he mentioned his talented daughters, both professional artists in their own right (Rebecca is an actor and drama therapist; Emily is an accomplished cellist). “My greatest happiness is that they’re both performing artists,” said Elkin.
In the middle of our conversation he blushed when an audience member wanted to praise him. “My family and I want to thank you,” said the patron. “We were watching you rehearse in the park last week, and we want to tell you that coming to your shows every year has been a big part of our lives.”
This is the very magic that Elkin casts on wide audiences. His uncanny ability to make Shakespeare accessible is second to none. This year, for instance, he took creative liberty and set Much Ado in the post-war 1940’s era. The production is complete with dancing and the live music he loves from that time period. A chorus of four singers and an on-stage accompanist not only captured the attention of the large audiences on the hill, but even the interest of people who weren’t even at the festival. They were walking dogs or jogging along Hoyt Lake, and they stopped in their tracks– spellbound.
But Elkin said the success of the company is not all his. “In brief, however much I prepare, invent, or conceptualize, I try not to see the final product in my mind’s eye. I try to cast [the plays] well and then open the door for the actors and designers to invent and surprise me– and they always do,” he said.
Lisa Ludwig, one of Buffalo’s first-rate actors and Managing Director of the company, is playing the lead female role of Beatrice in Much Ado. As she prepared for her performance back stage, in her 1940’s Katherine Hepburn-like costume, she shared how wonderful it is to work on the production. “What can I say? I love working with Saul,” she said. “And there is nothing like looking out at the audience on a perfect summer night when the sun has just set and the citronella candles are flickering and [I have] this moment of knowing how lucky we are to have Shakespeare in Delaware Park in Buffalo,” she added.
Much Ado About Nothing runs until July 11, 2010. (There will be no show on July 4). Both plays of the season, Much Ado and Macbeth, run Tuesdays through Sundays, and start at 7:30 pm. On Tuesdays the directors will hold discussions with audiences a half hour before curtain. Also, pre-show live music is performed at 7pm on Wednesdays. It is best to get there early, as audiences flock to the hill in order to set up lawn chairs, blankets and picnic baskets. In the wise words of the Bard himself, “Joy’s soul lies in the doing.” Hazzah!