by Raphael Badagliacca
It’s impossible to write about Shakespeare in the Parking Lot without writing about the experience of the performance, especially on a beautiful night in New York City, perfect for doing anything out of doors. Arriving early to any play lets you observe the set for what it says before the actors start talking. In this case, it is spare — a small table covered by a cloth up against a bare brick wall with graffiti that predates the play — the authentic language of city walls. The audience is also more talkative than in the usual closed space. Conversations are mostly between those who have been at a parking lot performance and those who have not, including people from far reaches, like the London woman of Ukrainian descent who happened to be sitting next to me. Listening, it becomes clear that in addition to interpreters of the words the famous bard scrawled and left behind, those about to strut will also play the role of ambassadors for those who live in the city as well as those just passing through.
Antonio (James Davies) is sad and does not know why. He is the rich merchant of Venice, sitting in a white bathrobe that cannot help but remind us of Tony Soprano’s morning garb, but there’s nothing else they have in common, unless it is this underlying, unexplained sadness of a man with power.
Shylock (Dave Marantz) is powerless outside of his community, and sad, too, but unlike Antonio he knows himself and the reasons for his sadness. Deeper understanding is the fate of those culturally out of favor — to understand the ways of both the group in power and those of the powerless group to which they belong, while those in power have the luxury of dismissing the powerless with stereotypes of otherness. This is the import of Shylock’s most famous speech — if you prick us do we not bleed?
Portia (Jane Bradley), the character in the play with the largest fortune, feels herself most unfortunate because her deceased father, from whom the fortune derives, has projected his power beyond the grave to make her powerless to choose her husband, transforming her fate into a lottery, a game show with herself the prize behind one of the doors. Her maid, Nerissa (Amanda Fuller), whose circumstances will never equal Portia’s, points out, with Shakespeare’s overriding efficiency of language, a kind of verbal geometry. She could only understand what misfortune is if she were to experience it in parts equal to her fortune, which we know will never happen. Yet when we are treated to the array of suitors the play presents us, we understand how much of a lottery marriage is, especially for a woman of that time, even one with a fortune.
There is energy in this cast. Israel Hillery as Morocco, one of the suitors, steals the moment with exaggerated exotic movements and language, a crowd pleaser who captures the attention of Portia, if only briefly. As second suitor, Richard Steele, offers impressive choreography and attitude. Both actors have panache and make us like them immensely.
Only Eric Paterniani as Gabo, Shylock’s gentile assistant, has more energy. He is loud and comical in the extreme. His antics remind us that dark as many of the scenes in this play may be, it is a comedy, after all. He makes us laugh.
Bassanio, the lucky suitor, Portia, and Shylock are at the center of the play. Adam Huff gives us a passionate Bassanio; Shakespeare’s words flow naturally for him, always the fail-safe test. As they do for Jane Bradley’s Portia, who makes us feel her uncertainty at the outset as fully as her confidence at the finish. In legal garb, Shakespeare represents her with the powers of a more contemporary woman, but in keeping with the century, only in the disguise of a man. In this way, the plot gets behind the truth that inner reality is compromised by cultural impressions.
The plot is not as kind to Shylock. The eloquence of the language as delivered by Dave Marantz recognizes the same reality. The plot forces an unconvincing conversion as the path to goodness, a cultural formula at odds with the truth of the language. At the moment of Shylock’s ultimate humiliation, the audience in the parking lot gasped as one.
This production gets points for how it engages the audience, with modern references and relevant objects like cell phones without doing harm to the spirit of the play. You may even find yourself offered a rose, or invited onto the stage.
In a parking lot on Norfolk, not far from Canal Street, the canals of Venice play out a fateful drama, while in the New York City background random sirens sing.
The MERCHANT of VENICE
by William Shakespeare, directed by Ezra Barnes;
With Bob Arcaro, Jane Bradley, Peter Bretz, Aly Byatt, Michael V. Carrera, James Davies, Lauriel Friedman, Amanda Fuller, Israel Hillery, Adam Huff, Warren (Ren) Jackson, Eric Paterniani, Michael Sazonov, Richard Steele and Wayne Willinger.
Production design, Jennnifer Varbalow
presented by The Drilling Company; Thursdays thru Saturdays, 8PM, through August 13; La Plaza @ The Clemente Parking Lot, 114 Norfolk Street (between Delancey and Rivington)
FREE; come early to claim your seat.