Stage & Dance

Review: Director, cast turn 'Merchant' into stellar summer theater

If you think you don't like Shakespeare, Ave Lawyer's SummerFest production of The Merchant of Venice might change your mind.

Even before the play begins, the sleek, modern set and vaulted video screen suggest a contemporary twist on the Venetian tale of love, money and religious conflict.

Choosing to set a 16th-century Shakespearean play out of period is always risky. Many directors go astray trying to freshen the material by experimenting wildly with the setting.

For Lawyer, that risk pays off and then some, largely because the innovative elements — such as an overlay of hip-hop music and images on the video screen — weave seamlessly with the performers and the language. The result is a deeply fleshed-out and relevant work made even more accessible to contemporary audiences.

Lawyer worked with Michael Breeding and Neil Kesterson to design a fluid audio-visual accompaniment that feels more MTV than historic Italy. Mary J. Blige and Kanye West form the soundtrack of this modernized tale. Characters send text messages and tote laptops, which creatively weave into the story's main plot elements.

Lawyer's direction is sophisticated, and more important, it gets the job done. By removing any distraction of interpretation between the play and the audience, the emotional experience is brought into sharper focus. Emotions that are difficult to cultivate on stage — like the mercy Antonio grants his enemy — are revealed in their barest and most striking power.

Of course, Lawyer had a lot of talent to work with.

Carmen Geraci's Antonio, for instance, is a chief source of the play's sense of empathy and commitment to poetic, if not lawful, justice. His performance reveals a deep understanding of Antonio's inner drive, a love at once forbidden and beautiful.

Adam Luckey and Bob Singleton bring electricity to their roles as Shylock and Bassanio.

However, two of the most refreshing performance elements of the show are Lisa Thomas and Rosanna Hurt as Portia and Nerissa, respectively. Here is a rare instance in which Shakespeare gives us some female characters worth their weight in ducats.

The two deliver smart, inspired performances. Their characters understand, more than the men, that neither the law nor religion is as useful as the justice of the heart, which the two women take upon themselves to enact with a bit of well-meaning trickery.

The ensemble reaches its zenith in the second act, when Shylock is attempting to claim his "pound of flesh" from Antonio, whom he blames for the flight of his only daughter and to whom he had lent money.

With a video camera onstage projecting alternate views of the courtroom, and a quiet desperation pouring from Antonio, one feels the sensation of dread, judgment and anger-laden anxiety seep throughout The Arboretum.

Gorgeously staged, this scene focuses a sharp and potent lens on the true meaning of justice and mercy.

Creating fresh emotional experiences is a challenge for any Shakespeare production. Led by a clearly defined vision and supported by strong performers, The Merchant of Venice feels as relevant as it did 400 years ago.

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