The Ohio Shakespeare Festival has the end piece of its mosaic to create Shakespearean plays as close as possible to how the Bard would have done them.
Now it has a permanent stage — and it looks awesome. Shakespeare wrote with one place in mind. The Festival has managed to recreate such a space outdoors in the lagoon area of Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens.
Shakespeare’s way-complicated plot in “”Merchant of Venice” is the first chance for the Festival to bring all the pieces together — learned Elizabethan stage acting, period special effects, Shakespearean use of the stage and now the stage itself. Ohio Shakespeare Festival director for this production, Terry Burgler, makes it all work splendidly.
In “Merchant,” Bassanio (played with urbane wit by Joe Pine) wishes to woo wealthy heiress Portia. Having no resources, he goes to befriend Antonio, a wealthy merchant (who has bailed him out before). Antonio agrees, but since he is cash poor, he promises to cover a bond if Bassanio can find a lender. So he goes to Shylock and names Antonio loan guarantor.
Shylock, who hates Antonio, agrees. However Shylock (performed with driven intensity by Robert Hawkes) has his own condition: If Antonio forfeits, Shylock may take a pound of flesh. Against Bassanio’s advice, Antonio goes foward. With money in hand, Bassanio leaves to woo Portia.
Meanwhile Portia has her own issues. Her father left a will stipulating each of her suitors must choose correctly from one of three caskets — gold, silver or lead. If he picks right, he gets Portia. Two suitors fail, while Bassanio of course picks correctly.
No sooner are they linked up (and her servant, Nerissa, and Bassanio’s friend, Gratiano) than they hear that Antonio could not meet the deadline and Shylock is screaming for blood. Bassanio and Gratiano set off to help, and unknown to the men, the women do as well, only in disguise as lawyer and clerk.
At a trial over what would amount to a public flaying of Antonio, Portia (played with bravado by Lara Knox) saves the day through legal trickery and maneuvering.
This play may as well be called “All’s Well That Ends Well” — for it does, except for Shylock.
Money is a serious issue in “Merchant.” The play comes down to who is entitled to it and how they get it — through capitalist ventures, financial shenanigans, marriage and inheritance, or like the character of Gobbo, through earning it. How funny is that idea.
Mention should be made of these actors — Mark Stoffer, who plays an hysterically droll Prince of Arragon (a suitor of Portia), Henry Bishop (as Gobbo’s babbling blind father) and Karen Wood (as an able servant). They each show that small parts can gain great stage presence and notice.
“Merchant of Venice” is presented as part of the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron; 330-836-5533; www.stanhywet.org. Performances are held Thursday-Sunday at 8 p.m. through August 19. Tickets are $25; $30 for reserved seating.
For more information on the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, call 330-673-8761 or visit www.ohioshakespeare.com.