Andy Koski, J.C. Luxton, and ensemble members in The Merchant of Venice After six seasons of reverse-gender casting, anachronistic details, audience interaction, and unapologetic tweaking and trimming of classical works, the happily untraditional Prenzie Players have, with their production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, moved in a truly subversive direction: They've gone traditional. Sort of.

To be sure, all the elements that make Prenzie Prenzie are duly accounted for. The Bard's poetry is occasionally interrupted by exclamations of "Awesome!" and "Shit!", and the climax features a significant departure from the script, ensuring far fewer Happily Ever Afters. Angela Rathman is cast in a male role - cleverly, her Launcelot Gobbo is now a Guenevere - and the gay overtones in the relationship between Antonio (Andy Koski) and Bassanio (J.C. Luxton) are no longer merely overtones. Merchant's time period is kept deliberately nonspecific; costumer and co-star Anne Javaherian offers a stylish blend of modern-day and period attire, and a scene of Antonio on his laptop segues into one commandeered by an honest-to-God pirate (a very funny James Palagi). And yes, the fourth wall is routinely shattered - the Prenzies speak to us, amongst us, and even, in one instance, on top of (one of) us.

Yet while the internals remain the same, the externals for director Cait Bodenbender's dynamically enjoyable production have changed. After seven consecutive offerings in Rock Island's Masonic Temple - plus those performed prior to 2006 - the Prenzies' current housing at the Village Theatre allows them access to their first proper stage, significantly more advanced lighting effects, and a reprieve from the echo-chamber effect that drove some audience members batty. Personally, I was never that distracted by the sound at the Masonic Temple (and, at the Village Theatre, was all-too-aware of clomping boots and heels on the venue's thrust stage), but the new location still proves a good fit, and, with experimentation and time, could grow into an even better one.

Maggie Woolley, Matt Moody, Jaci Entwisle, and J.C. Luxton in The Merchant of Venice Designed by Merchant co-star Jaci Entwisle (dryly hilarious as Nessia), the well-timed lighting effects establish changing locales and focus with splendid effortlessness and grace. But flow was never a problem at Prenzie shows, so I kind of wish they'd taken more advantage of their possibilities here. Merchant's lighting is pretty much confined to "lights up, lights down," and subtle alternations within scenes could've made already-affecting sequences even more so; moments such as Bassanio's consideration of the three locked chests, and Karl Bodenbender's gorgeously mood-altering piano solo, almost cry for technical ingenuity to match.

I can barely imagine what might've resulted if the Prenzies, in Merchant, had found a visual style equal to their performance gifts. Koski and Luxton, both individually and together, hit wonderfully frank peaks of desperation and romantic ardor, and Maggie Woolley navigates a tricky role with frisky humor and absolute finesse; Portia's "quality of mercy" soliloquy shows a performer at her most confident and authoritative. Having less to do, Beth Woolley plays Jessica with becoming modesty, and Rathman, so magnificently funny/scary in the Green Room's recent Misery, goes for funny/funny here to joyous effect. Best of all, perhaps, is Aaron Sullivan's powerfully affecting Shylock, who is devastatingly intimidating and menacing without making a big deal of it. Sullivan's Shylock is humanely evil. (Like many, I find Shakespeare's conception of the character - a greedy Jew forced into Christianity - abhorrent, but richly so, and to their credit, the Prenzies don't shy away from the play's inherent hatefulness.)

Given Merchant's hugely engaging cast, only one scene here is a letdown, but it's a doozy - the courtroom climax is almost completely undone by incessant kvetching from the otherwise first-rate Javaherian, Matt Moody, and Stephanie Moeller, who are forced to scream "No!" and "Come on!" and such following nearly every Shylock and Portia utterance. We're all used to the (amusing) convention of courtroom onlookers muttering disparaging comments while trials are in session, but with only three actors doing so here - and doing it loudly - it quickly becomes an unfunny joke. (In my nine-show experience with the Prenzies, this was a first: a thoroughly irritating sequence.)

Andy Koski and J.C. Luxton in The Merchant of Venice But in a presentation that gets so much right, it's easy enough to ignore this momentary lapse in good judgment, and the show is filled with the group's unique brand of mischievous wit: the wizardly precise staging of Portia's introductory scene, perfectly timed to the piano accompaniment; Gobbo enacting the battle of Good versus Evil with Barbie dolls; the exquisite slapstick involving the jolting thunk! of a dropped chest. (Speaking of wit, bonus points are earned for the Prenzie returns of Andy Lord - last seen, though not by me, in 2005's Macbeth, and excellent here as Lorenzo - and Anthony Anderson, also hysterical in 2005's Twelfth Night.)

And, of course, there's the fun in watching the Prenzies working within the boundaries (more or less) of "traditional" theatre. During Friday's post-show Q&A, director Bodenbender admitted that one of the challenges in producing The Merchant of Venice in the current venue was "just to see if we could do it." They can. Now I'm looking forward to seeing them do more with it.


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