H ey, check this out. Suddenly the Bard is bad.
Bad, as in cool: Picture Shakespeare with hair gel, in pastels and pushed-up sleeves. Last season, Cal State Fullerton updated "Romeo and Juliet" with punk and heavy metal trimmings; now Orange Coast College and Saddleback College are staging productions of Shakespeare that, while remaining faithful to his words, deliberately blur the time frame.
There is a message to this madness. It illustrates the relevance of Shakespeare to modern life. The sting in these stories is just as sharp as it was 300 years ago.
Ah, but does it work? The answer is a qualified yes. Sometimes the fit is brilliant; other times it strains at the seams of logic. But it is never dull.
"The Merchant of Venice" at OCC and "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" at Saddleback are unabashedly ambitious projects, and both casts demonstrate an evident feel for the material. Minor problems--some rushed lines and careless enunciation--pepper both productions. But the thorough preparation by the casts, and the careful thought given to this intriguing time travel are immediately obvious.
A cloudburst was dropping buckets of rain on the roof of the OCC Drama Lab. It would have been the perfect introduction to "The Tempest." This was the opening night of "The Merchant of Venice," however. And as it developed, the storm outside was neat symbolism for the torrent of human misery about to be unleashed on stage.
Director Bill Purkiss and his cast have torn into Shakespeare's tale of love, greed and justice with a vengeance. Their vision is dark and disturbing.
Revealing the self-infatuated characters who compose the upper class in Venice, circa 1597--or is it 1987?--Purkiss deliberately mixes his metaphors. The costuming is an odd combination of modern dress and Elizabethan garb: Coats and ties are worn over tights and boots; miniskirts and leotards coexist alongside powdered wigs and fur-trimmed cloaks.
The set itself--a backdrop of Venice fronted by stark platforms and planks--is expressly noncommittal to era. The program notes say the scene is "the streets, homes, and courtroom of Medieval Venice and Belmont, or perhaps Irvine, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, or Newport Beach in a somewhat more modern setting."
The message is clear: Prejudice, racism, greed and convolutions of the justice system still exist. And this production makes the point well.
OCC faculty member David Schuster provides the heart and soul of the production with his sympathetic, wrenching portrayal of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Schuster makes a strong case for Shylock's actions, showing us a man reviled by the Venetian power structure and driven to the brink of insanity by the disappearance of his daughter.
In his grief, he is bent on taking his revenge on the most convenient symbol, a wealthy businessman who has borrowed money and has put up a pound of his own flesh as the bond. There is nobility in this tragic Jew, made all the more tragic by the inevitability of the outcome.
The villains in this version have fewer dimensions. The merchant of Venice, Antonio, is seen as a cruel, bigoted wheeler-dealer. Portia has become a spoiled, mean-spirited princess, filing her nails to wile away the boredom and greeting her suitors with thinly disguised sarcasm. And you can bet that the course of true love doesn't run smooth: All the romantic relationships here hinge on greed and self-interest. Bassanio, courting Portia, is primarily interested in her money. His buddy Lorenzo woos Shylock's daughter strictly to get his hands on her daddy's ducats.
There are good performances by Bryan Burnes as Antonio, Alice Ensor as Portia, Brandon Faloona as Bassanio and Steven Shults as Lorenzo. But the contempt in these characterizations runs deep, and the aftertaste is bitter and undiluted.
'THE MERCHANT OF VENICE' An Orange Coast College theater department production of the play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Bill Purkiss. With Bryan Burnes, Brandon Faloona, David Schuster, Alice Ensor, Wendy Ballew, Steven Shults, Rose Farquhar, Gabriel Carrasco, Russell Dunn, Chris Williams, Eric Dean Scott, David Scaglione, Salvador Sanchez, Frank Martinez, Paul Klees, Ponzer Berkman, Kristina D'Amico. Set design David Scaglione. Costume design Jennifer Colony. Lighting design Lonnie Alcaraz. Plays at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, with a 4 p.m. Sunday matinee. Closes Nov. 15. Tickets $5-$6. Orange Coast College Drama Lab Theatre, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa, (714) 432-5880.