A Mesmerizing 'Merchant Of Venice' As Arts & Ideas Hits Its Stride

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas continues to nail the cool summer concept of casual high culture. Events are comfortable, jazzy, confrontational and intellectual.

One of this year’s big draws, Karin Coonrod’s production of “The Merchant of Venice,” plays through Saturday. This mind-expanding, issues-laden show is defined by a few high concepts. Shylock is a fluid character played alternately by five different actors. Trumpeter Frank London of The Klezmatics leads a onstage experimental jazz/neo-classical band. The play is performed outdoors, in the Yale Law School courtyard, which is fitting since it ends with a disturbing trial scene.

It may sound like there’s not much wiggle room for improvisation, but this is a loose, airy, open rendition of Shakespeare’s play, with a lot of fascinating variations. The big one on Wednesday was when Michelle Uranowitz, who plays Shylock’s daughter Jessica, apparently had a bad fall backstage. Following a lengthy mid-show delay during which the words “Is there a doctor in the house?” were actually uttered, Uranowitz delivered the rest of her lines via an offstage microphone.

This is an active show that has your eyes darting constantly about the tree-lined lawn of a stage, as the actors regularly change into different robes and flap about animatedly. The performance is introduced and regularly interrupted, in Italian, by Francesca Sara Toich as an antic deep-voiced commedia-style clown.

This “Merchant of Venice” plays up the play’s awkward racism and sexism in a way that the audience can not choose to downplay or ignore. Shylock’s speeches take on different tones, volumes and genders. The individualized performances are mesmerizing in such an intimate outdoor space. All the Shylocks have their moments, but I was bowled over by the great John Rothman, who plays the role during the concluding trial scene. He rails eloquently, with exquisite world-weariness. It helps that one of his persecutors is played by Linda Powell, a forthright and imposing Portia who’s a worth adversary for the whole pack of Shylocks.

This year, the first half of the Arts & Ideas festival was marked by the traditional music concerts by major artists on New Haven Green (including a sultry, low-key yet captivating set by young singer-songwriter Ruth B), while the second half has been distinguished by theater and dance works. Besides Coonrod’s extraordinary “Merchant of Venice,” which runs through June 23, there are two performances July 21 and 22 in the Shubert theater of the Beatles-inspired “Pepperland,” performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group, and the solo theater piece “Requiem for an Electric Chair” by Toto Kisaku. “Requiem for an Electric Chair” has turned out to be a prescient and timely booking. In the piece, Kisaku recounts his real-life experiences being prosecuted, and nearly executed, for his political theater work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His adventures as an asylum-seeker dovetail with current headlines about U.S. immigration policies and international human rights issues. A third performance of “Requiem for an Electric Chair” had to be added due to public demand. Kisaku performs it June 22 at 6 p.m. and June 23 at 1 and 6 p.m.

This year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas may have fewer big events overall than it has in the past, but it remains a spectacular playground of the arts. There’s still plenty to do, and it’s kind of nice not to be utterly overwhelmed for a change.

There are always unexpected delights at Arts & Ideas. This year, for me, it was an interactive sound and light sculpture presented by the Boston-based Masary Studios. Large translucent blocks were scattered about a stage area in the festival’s VIP tent. Those in the tent were invited to arrange them as they saw fit. Not only did the blocks glow in mellow colors, the stage was an activated grid with one matrix for rhythm and another for pitch. Changing the positions of the blocks altered the sounds and beats channeled through special software on a laptop. The sculpture was really a performance piece, as there was always a human presence creating not just new patterns but new sounds.

Arts & Ideas has the same special feel it’s had since it started in the mid-1990s. In-depth discussions are held on street corners for hours after performances. Folks stroll from one event to another, ice creams in hand. At a time when New Haven streets would otherwise be desolate, with Yale on break, public schools still in session, and other big summer activities yet to start, Arts & Ideas creates an aura of artfulness and intelligence around the city.

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas continues at numerous locations in downtown New Haven through June 23. A full schedule is at artidea-org.

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