Quintessence Theatre Group’s Americanization of Venice


Two Venetian-themed comedies are currently running in repertory at Quintessence Theatre Group’s home base in Mt. Airy’s historic Sedgwick Theater: Goldoni’s THE VENETIAN TWINS of 1748; and Shakespeare’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, written circa 1596-98. Quintessence consistently utilizes a bare stage with minimal props, to focus on the actor and the spoken word. But if you’re looking for a purist presentation of the classics, you won’t find it here. The young company, now in its second season, takes a peculiarly contemporary, American approach to the time-honored works. It is an anti-classical aesthetic that will leave some in stitches, and others in a quandary.

Daniel Fredrick, Josh Carpenter, and Ken Sandberg in Quintessence Theatre Group’s THE VENETIAN TWINS. (Photo credit: Alexander Burns)

Both Goldoni and Shakespeare employed comedy in the service of didacticism, not distraction. Director Alexander Burns has chosen to insert such anachronistic clichés as Brooklyn accents and Southern Baptist preaching, 21st-century business suits and urban street dancing into the historic plays to the extent that they are visually and aurally jarring, they disrupt the flow of the action, and seem better suited to a series of TV skits than to classic theater. The ageless themes and morals of the Venetian-based works get buried under the over-the-top histrionics and exaggerated stereotypes that too often plague physical comedy. Too much of it is confusing, brash, and shrill, with the ensemble mugging, striking poses, and hamming rather than acting. The stock characters are frequently reduced to caricatures in this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mayhem.

But there are also many fine qualities in Quintessence’s shows. Benim Foster is a standout in the repertory cast, and his tour-de-force performances alone are well worth the price of admission. As Shylock, the much maligned Jew in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, Foster is profound and impassioned, three-dimensional and sympathetic. As the villain Pancrazio in THE VENETIAN TWINS, he brings subtlety and sophistication to the archetypal hypocrite; his speech is tempered and his movement fluid, his every posture, gesture, and facial expression respects the classical tenet of “less is more.” Foster’s style astutely embraces the agility of Charlie Chaplin over the inanity of Jerry Lewis, the dignified elegance of Carnevale in Venice over the drunken revelry of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

J Center, too, is an accomplished character actor, who brings distinction to each of his supporting roles. And his younger castmates, when playing it straight and toning it down, evince their own considerable talents. Among the most impressive scenes in THE VENETIAN TWINS are the well executed swordfights, masterfully choreographed by Ian Rose; especially witty is the one in which Tonino, portrayed with appropriate stateliness by Josh Carpenter, nonchalantly fends off an attack behind his back, all the while focusing on his conversation with a friend in front of him. Jane Casanave’s historicizing costumes for THE VENETIAN TWINS beautifully capture the mood of the period and the classes of the characters. And even some of the more madcap vignettes in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, such as Alexander Harvey’s turn as the Prince of Arragon, are admittedly funny–or, more accurately, zany–albeit inauthentic to the timbre of Shakespeare.

Benim Foster as Shylock and Bethany Ditnes as his daughter Jessica in Quintessence Theatre Group’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. (Photo credit: David Sexton)

Goldoni was a theatrical iconoclast in his day, who revolutionized the Italian convention of commedia dell’arte by unmasking its actors and dispensing with its improvisational scenario in favor of a set script; in other words, he made it more classical. Though relying on some of the familiar characters of the commedia, Goldoni rendered them accessible and human, revealing the people beneath the masks, and exploring the real-life social etiquette of his era. Shakespeare, of course, was the unsurpassed observer of human behavior and civil foibles, expressed in a language of exquisite beauty that imparted a serious ethical message, even in his comedies. While Quintessence’s mission of taking a fresh young American look at the classics is admirable, what these productions generally lack is the essence of the playwrights and the spirit of Venice–their old world maturity and refinement.

By Carlo Goldoni
Adaptation by Ranjit Bolt
In repertory with
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Alexander Burns
October 5-November 20, 2011
Quintessence Theatre Group
The Sedgwick Theater
7137 Germantown Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19119

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