July 27 2011 12:00 AM

‘Merchant’ cast provides laughs, but can’t reveal the play’s darker side


The Shakespeare on the Grand/Lansing Civic Players stage
is not on the Grand anymore: It’s tucked inside Potter Park Zoo. So “The
Merchant of Venice” (produced by the renamed Shakespeare at the Zoo)
trades the constant white noise of Grand Avenue traffic and ambulances
for the periodic rumbling of freight trains — the tracks are barely 100
feet away.

Still, abundant trees provide ample shade and a more picturesque setting than the rusting girders of the Lou Adado stage. 

A complex tragic-comedy with religious overtones, sensual puns and poetically barbed insults, “Merchant”
shows that expensive courtships have always had life-threatening
consequences. When the merchant Antonio (Kris Vitols) agrees to lend
considerable funds to his friend Bassanio (Joseph Mull) to court the
wealthy maiden Portia (Anna Hatcher), Antonio must borrow from his
nemesis, Shylock (Tod Humphrey) a Jewish money-lender despised by the
Christian population. If Antonio can not repay the debt, then he owes
Shylock a pound of his own flesh.

Director Mike Stewart breaks with the tradition of arbitrarily updating Shakespeare by staging “Merchant” in its intended 14th century Italy. Given the limited time and resources available to Stewart and the cast, “Merchant” is a relatively consistent, entertaining production. 

The entire cast remains enthusiastically
engaged, despite oppressive humidity and passing trains. When a train
does pass, the cast forms a conga line, dancing through its duration
with gleeful acceptance instead of impatient resentment.

However, the mostly campy,
played-for-bawdy-laughs performances leave little room for the play’s
darker ambiguities, especially those revolving around Shylock.
Thankfully, the actors ensure important lines like “the devil can cite
scripture for his own purpose” and the “hath not a Jew eyes” speech are
articulated appropriately. 

Particularly strong performances come
from Daryl Thompson as Bassanio’s close friend Gratiano. Thompson marks
his return to the Lansing stage after a noticeable absence with naughty
gusto, giving the least self-conscious performance of the entire cast.
As the contract-bound yet clever Portia, Hatcher’s eloquence and
deliberate gestures more than make up for her constant winks and nods to
the audience. Finally, Michael Hays brings gravitas and seriousness to
the Duke in the final courtroom scene, which otherwise teeters on

Costumes provided by Kris and Anna Maier
add a nice touch of realism, and classical guitar interludes help hasten
scene transitions. The two-and-a-half-hour running time (with
intermission) may not sound like cool comfort, but this valiant attempt
provides a welcome escape from the summer doldrums.

‘The Merchant of Venice’
Through July 31
Lansing Civic Players’ Shakespeare at the Zoo
Potter Park Zoo, 1301 S. Pennsylvania Ave., Lansing
6:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays: 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Free (with zoo admission)