"Money," as Cyndi Lauper taught us, "changes everything." Money is certainly the root of the troubles in "Volpone" and "The Merchant of Venice," as characters are willing to commit fraud, perjury and murder for some filthy lucre.
Despite this and the shared Venetian setting, the plays are very different. Ben Jonson's "Volpone" is a savage and ribald satire, while Shakespeare's famously troubled work is masked by a veneer of romantic comedy.
Classical Actors Ensemble doesn't force the two plays into the same box in its repertory production at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage. Instead, we get sharp creations loaded with strong performances that accent each play's unique gifts.
Director Kate Powers doesn't shy away from "The Merchant of Venice's" troubling anti-Semitism. Shylock's thirst for revenge is intensified by the barely controlled hatred of the Christian Venetians, who rail against his religion, jostle him in the street and spit at his feet.
Still, Shylock has murder in his heart, especially after his daughter runs off, elopes and converts to Christianity. When young Bassanio asks merchant Antonio for financial help in wooing fair Portia, Antonio turns to Shylock for a loan. In place of the usual interest, they set an unusual cost if the loan is not repaid — a pound of Antonio's flesh.
It comes down to Portia to save the day, but she does more than manipulate the court (disguised as a man, naturally) — she manipulates her husband and then twists him around her finger as if all of this were a game.
A darker take on Portia is certainly not unique, but Stanzi D. Schalter makes her complexities almost as intriguing as those presented by Joe Wiener as Shylock. We're not going to fall in love with this Portia, but Schalter makes us understand the complexities beneath the beauty and wealth.
In "Volpone," the title character (thrillingly played by Arthur Moss) is a libertine hellbent on defrauding his own trio of merchants. He has feigned illness for years, while raking in gifts from hopeful heirs to his fortune. It comes undone when an attempted rape exposes Volpone to the court. He and his servant Mosca will have to use all of their guile to save the day.
While Shakespeare probed the human condition, Jonson was more interested in scoring satirical points, as the ghastly Volpone and Mosca scheme against equally ghastly — or just clueless — adversaries.
Director Joseph Papke (who also plays Mosca) accents this throughout, from the exaggerated postures of Volpone's "leeches" to the title character's unexpected verse of the Doors' "Touch Me" just before his wooing turns to attempted rape.
Both productions use the same set by Dietrich Poppen, which evokes a Venetian street scene, while Marco T. Mango's costumes draw on classic early 20th-century designs. These shared touches help to unify the shows, but both live and breathe very well on their own.
Ed Huyck is a Twin Cities theater critic.