By Danielle Farrow
Shakespeare’s Villains focuses on three of Shakespeare’s bad guys: Macbeth, Shylock from The Merchant of Venice and Tybalt from Romeo and Juliet. The latter is an odd choice and relies less on its villain than on the quicksilver Mercutio, but the overall play created from Shakespeare’s lines – while not building to a fully satisfying climax – is intriguing for Shakespeare fans and clear in its storytelling for anyone not so familiar with the plays.
The simple design and staging – two chairs, a tiny bit of mask work (not fully embodied), suits and fencing foils, with a few elements of costume such as a military jacket, waistcoats and hats – allow for quick transitions, with only a few blackout stops. The configuration of the playing space means the audience are on two sides of what amounts to a thrust performance area, with a corner at the very front centre. Occasionally, this means some characters and their reactions are lost to a number of the audience, however, direction usually deals with this set up, keeps a decent flowing pace, and the fights work particularly well.
The company are strong together as an ensemble, but individual acting is varied in its quality. Tybalt relies on harsh breathing and sneers to show just how villainous he is. Macbeth speaks to the audience – usually great for Shakespeare – but his clarity of speech matched with monotonous delivery resembles that of a presenter who just wants to get through this as clearly as possible: he is devoid of feeling, let alone Macbeth’s passion. Romeo’s sonnet with Juliet is engaging, yet he cannot fully connect with extreme feelings.
Shylock, however, with strong support from Antonio, brings true emotion, understanding and rooted meaning – Jeremy Radin as this Venetian Jew performs with confident strength and sensibility, drawing in and genuinely affecting his audience. Director Brian Elerding proves his acting versatility as Antonio and Mercutio, among other roles, and breathes life and connected physicality into his portrayals.
Bassanio’s gender is changed, the actress playing this with emotional clarity, but she is repeatedly cast in roles of power without embodying such. The actress playing Lady Macbeth and Portia shows psychological depth, but takes breaths in strange places, affecting pacing and cues, and neither Lady M nor her husband has a true sense of blood on them, else she would not smear it all over Macbeth’s face and clothing when they are already in desperate need of getting this evidence off their hands. The third female performer is underused, despite playing Juliet, her Duke of Venice and even messenger bringing a fresh sense of being truly present and engaged.
With Shakespeare’s Villains, the California Shakespeare Ensemble have achieved a production of clarity, interest and smooth execution, which keeps the attention (not always achieved by the numerous Shakespeare-based shows that flood the Fringe) and, at points, can move spectators to real thought and feeling.
1-16 August (not 3, 10), 11:30 (12:40) @ theSpace on the Mile