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The little theater that could

You've got to love small, regional theater. According to a number of sources, that's where the future of the art form lies. Small theaters often deliver artistically engaging moments of live theater because of — and in spite of — their diminutive size and available financial resources.

Rogue Community College's Medford campus comes to mind in this regard. They have been presenting outstanding productions of plays at their venue in a refurbished warehouse on Bartlett Street. The cast and crew share the space with a number of other classes and so must take down their sets and seats every weekend and put them back up again at the end of the week for their shows.

And the students who perform in the plays have to figure out how to fit the rehearsals into their already tightly managed schedules which include holding down a job, going to school, and in many cases, being a single parent.

So it's more than a small miracle when the group decides to put on not just a play, but a Shakespeare play. And not just any Shakespeare play, but the complex "The Merchant of Venice."

RCC's production of that Shakespeare play opened to a full house last Friday. And there is every reason to believe it will enjoy full houses for the duration of its run, which is through this weekend: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.

You can't help but be struck by the set. Nothing says theater quite like bare-bones staging. And nothing says that like boxes arranged and rearranged to become steps, tables, walls — or whatever you need.

The boxes for this production have been painted in various shades of purples and lilacs. The same streaks of color appear on the walls and on the floor, suggesting the an urban downtown amid a forest of boxy buildings. The directors, John Cole and Ron Danko, have set the play in contemporary New York and the boxes convey that very effectively. So do the costumes, and New York accents.

Cole and Danko have a lot of fun working together. They are such a tight team that one year on the program they swapped their names to become John Danko and Ron Cole. There is a playfulness in them as artists that they pass on to their students and audiences.

In this production, we have a very funny Moroccan and Spaniard. These roles, both portrayed with tremendous comedic skill by Yosha Ellis, are usually presented as two hapless suitors for Portia's hand. Cole, Danko and Ellis have conjured up great moments of hilarity without taking anything away from Shakespeare's intention for the two characters.

Representing the other mask of the dramatic faces there is a brief scene in the middle of the play when Shylock goes off to the synagogue to pray. Shylock is seen at one side of the stage and we hear the sound of chanting in Hebrew. On the opposite side of the stage, Antonio is going to confession and we hear Gregorian chant.

Right in the center of the stage, a white-clad character bows toward Mecca as we hear the Muslim call to prayer. Behind him, another character appears holding a book of law and slams it down with a loud crash that silences all the chanting and the lights go out. Short. Powerful. Simple. Pure theater.

Shakespeare's audiences, who experienced more than their share of misfortune and mistreatment, got a vicarious sense of righteousness seeing the bad guy get his comeuppance in a revenge play. But the way Shylock's revenge backfires should be a warning to all who would cling to pay-back versus forgiveness.

The famous lines, "The quality of mercy is not strained" is painful coming from the lips of the duplicitous Portia. Better that the Duke had said them, then they might have been more credible. But that's not a choice that was available to Cole and Danko.

Hats off once again to everyone connected with the theater productions at RCC. They always manage to keep theater lively, relevant and imaginative, reminding us that small is beautiful.