The newly reorganized Mad Rogues theater company opens its first Bard & Bourbon show this month as it presents Merchant of Venice (Drunk) in the Underground Collaborative. The show continues Bard & Bourbon’s tradition of intimate Shakespeare performed in a cozy stage bereft of all distractions of production save actors, audience and lighting. Maya Danks directs a talented cast through a staging of Shakespeare’s classic that presents the entire ensemble onstage in folding chairs behind actors performing in the foreground. The warm communal atmosphere of a traditional Bard & Bourbon show continues in a deeply dramatic staging which mixes heavy drama with light, refreshing romantic comedy.
The dramatic end of the show is heavily anchored by a powerful Isaiah A. Ramirez as the revenant moneylender Shylock who demands a pound of flesh in return for a debt unpaid. Ramirez brigs an impassioned, high-gravity drama to the stage, wielding both even-tempered voice and silence like a dramatic scalpel. Thomas Sebald solemnly plays the target of Shylock’s vengeance, the Merchant Antonio. No modern production of the drama would feel right without some acknowledgement of the bigotry of the era. Mad Rogues delicately render the tragic drama of antisemitism around the edges of the production. Director Maya Danks met with the Education Director of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in preparation for the production. This is a very thoughtful staging of the plight of Shylock and those suffering widespread discrimination.
The comic end of the production is juggled between a number of different actors tumbling through the wild uncertainty of tenuous romantic love. Towering, charismatic Cole Conrad plays to the straight-ahead male romantic hero dynamic as Bassanio—-a man madly in love with a lady named Portia. Rebekah Farr has a sharp wit about her as Portia—a young person of deft wisdom. The traditional romantic dynamic between Farr and Conrad firmly asserts itself, but it’s Farr’s delightfully organic friendship with Rachel Verhoef as her waiting maid Nerissa that is easily the most endearing aspect of the production. The active friendship radiating through the lines between Farr and Verhoef is great fun to watch as unwanted suitors arrive in advance of the greatly favored Basanio.
Verhoef’s warmth with Farr is mirrored in the fascinating development of her love for Antonio’s friend Gratiano. J.J. Gatesman is vivaciously playful as Gratiano, who is swiftly drawn into love with Nerissa in the shadow of the actions and interactions between Bassanio and Portia. Gatesman and Verhoef don’t have a whole lot of space to move around in as various twists and turns in a young romance develop and meet their resolution. The two actors pack an impressively textured mini-romance in and around the edges of the action that feels every bit as sophisticated as the one going on in the foreground between Bassanio and Portia. Danks is wise to give them the space to do so. Maya Danks has done an admirable job of allowing the full ensemble a freedom of movement and expression in larger crowd scenes. Group scenes might have a tendency to overpower the action with so many people sharing such a small stage, but Danks swiftly juggles things without having all of the dramatic energy collide into a messy cacophony. Danks is great onstage as an actor, but this production shows that she has great vision in direction as well.
Mad Rogues’ Merchant of Venice (Drunk) runs through September 1st at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Mad Rogues online.