Bay Express, October
The small basement
theatre at La Val's barely contains the energy and ambition of this young,
talented company. Their Merchant remains true to Shakespeare only
in word and deed; the characters are post-modern. As always, twisted money-lender
Shylock (Stanley Spenger) seeks his pound of flesh from Antonio (Karl
Goldstein). Spenger richly furnishes the potentially barren rooms of Shylock's
madness while Goldstein subtly exposes the virulent anti-Semitism that
scars Antonio's good-natured support of his friend Bassanio (Michael Storm).
Meanwhile Shylock's daughter Jessica (Karen Goldstein), at first eager
to repudiate her father and become a Christian, ultimately shrinks from
the nest of anti-Semites into which she has fallen, a nest that includes
her husband, Lorenzo (Ray Looney). Given this interpretation, a scene
of Shakespearean banter between husband and wife takes on dark undercurrents.
As Jessica, Karen Goldstein is a true delight. Her voice, an unsettling
union of willfulness and whine, marks her for stardom in standup comedy.
Except for a persistent inclination to overpump the volume, both metaphorically
and literally, Shotgun's Merchant earns its place among the most
innovative, lively and engaging Shakespeare productions to grace the Bay
November 4, 1994
Hillary J. Fogerty
bare and 'breakin' it down,' the Shotgun Players have invaded the stage
at the La Val's Subterranean Theatre again this month with a compelling
production of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Director Patrick
Dooley, whose past projects were more likely to spring from the dark imagination
of dramatists such as David Mamet, proves himself a man of varied talents,
presenting an interpretation of the work which is surprisingly accessible
The strongly anti-Semitic tones of Shakespeare's script are explored and
challenged by an excellent cast, aided especially by subtle, well-crafted
staging. Jessica's (Karen Goldstein) conversion to Christianity is presented
in disturbing tones, deftly hinting regret. Shylock's famous speech ('Hath
not a Jew eyes?') is wrenchingly portrayed by Stan Spenger with his back
to the audience, forcing you to gauge his words through the reaction of
the characters watching onstage.
Comedy spars well with tragedy in this production - laughs are plentiful.
The frequent antics of Gobbo the Clown (played by longtime Shotgun member
Richard Silberg) and the flirtatious, hormonal love affair of Nerissa
and Gratiano (Vanessa Hopkins and Rich Reinholdt) are hilarious. The major
comedic coup is Pamela Wylie's as Portia, a woman waiting for the right
man. Her audience-involving digression on past suitors is fantastic (and
if anyone approaches you from the stage, don't hide your face - enjoy
your three minutes of fame).
Don't expect a visual extravaganza. The Shotgun Players use minimal props,
costumes and no set, conveying their message with quick pacing and raw
emotion. Their style is as 'in your face' as Shakespeare has ever been,
and the Bard sounds damn good that way.
Oakland Tribune, November,
Merchant of Venice is often called one of Shakespeare's troublesome
plays. The Bard's genius notwithstanding, the play is rife with anti-Semitism,
religious betrayal and naked avarice - themes that some directors deem
too loaded for modern audiences.
Not true of the version of Merchant produced by Patrick Dooley,
director of the Shotgun Players, Berkeley's maverick underground theatre
company. Literally underground. The company makes its home beneath La
Val's pizzeria on Euclid Avenue in the Subterranean Theatre.
Dooley's production embraces all of the controversial aspects of the play
and then goes beyond them to deliver a rousing rendition of the text.
His clever use of stark modern dress, minimal scenery and infectious modern
songs brought the arcane language alive and turned many in the otherwise
reserved audience into a beer-slurping toe-tapping chorus.
Stan Spenger plays Shylock, the much-maligned Jewish money lender, with
a controlled loathing simmering beneath his every line. Every gesture
and expression seem precise, drawing the eye to his every move. His performance
comes to a tragic head during the infamous courtroom scene, when he is
denied his pound of flesh and stripped of his wealth.
This Shylock would jerk a tear from the hardest heart. But why does Spenger
begin his classic 'hath not a Jew eyes' speech with his back turned squarely
to the audience? If this was a calculated move, it doesn't work.
A few scenes later, Portia, otherwise charmingly played by Pamela Wylie,
delivers her most-often-quoted monologue, 'the quality of mercy is not
strained,' looking upstage so her face isn't visible from the house.
That moment aside, Wylie makes a spirited and agile Portia - the real
mover and shaker in the play.
Michael Storm portrays her beloved, Bassanio, and brings an earthy charisma
to the somewhat lackluster role.
Vanessa Hopkins steals a few scenes as the wily maidservant Nerissa, exuding
the gleeful mischief-making that Shakespearean blue-collars revel in.
Which brings us to Richard Silberg's turn as Launcelot Gobbo, the crafty
yet demented manservant of Bassanio. Silberg has a true comedic gift,
and his delivery of the somewhat circuitous punch lines had the audience
heaving with laughter.
The rest of the cast members render their roles faithfully and, in general,
speak the language with disarming ease.
But the production does drag a bit. The action races along at a dizzying
clip until the crucial courtroom scene, when the energy flags. It doesn't
speed up again until the very end.
Even so, Dooley's direction works. His staging is at once insightful and
irreverent. He wisely chooses to place the text at the heart of the production,
which wastes no energy on elaborate costuming or scenery.
The high points of the show come when the barrier between actors and audience
drops. Several characters make comic use of those patrons seated close
to the stage, unwittingly supping on beer and pizza. In a '90s dinner-theatre
atmosphere, the pointed involvement of the audience makes sense.
Beer and pizza consumption aside, the play is intelligent, funny and well
worth the $8 admission price. But like any respectable fringe company,
the Shotgun Players accept payment on a sliding scale and turn no one
away for lack of lucre. Get there early so you don't have to sit on the