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Two Groups are Providing No-Cost Shakespeare, Indoors and Out 

Free Shakespeare, as you like it

Both the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival and the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival are running the works of Old Will right now. And while one happens outdoors (weather permitting) and the other takes place inside a ferociously air-conditioned auditorium, each of the productions has plenty to recommend it.

Now in its 18th season of providing Shakespeare to the masses, the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival (or Cleveshakes) enlists mostly young actors in the area to mount two traveling shows each summer. This year, they opened with The Life of Timon of Athens and they're currently performing a most audacious version of The Merchant of Venice.

As adapted and directed by Scott Miller, this Merchant starts off as a wildly overacted comedy romp centered around Portia's suitor selection process. That morphs into a nailbiting courtroom drama as Shylock tries to exact his pound of flesh from hapless Antonio (Keith Kornajcik), who went into debt for his pal Bassanio (Leilani Barrett), before the disguised Portia intercedes.

Many of the actors are having a blast at the start as they run, leap, wrestle with each other, ride piggyback, and emote like this was their last 10 seconds on a stage anywhere. A lot of this works just fine since Shakespeare's exposition could use a bit of a jolt. Ryan Stafford as Gratonio, Ananias J. Dixon as the Prince of Morocco and Luke Brett as Launcelot Gobbo stand out as they accost other performers and the audience in a no-holds-barred attempt to cadge more laughs.

Of course, the fun of overacting has its limits, and those are reached when Salanio (Luke Edward Powers) and Salarino (Nicholas Chokan), friends of Antonio and Bassanio, hit the stage, doing a bit that is notable for it's excessiveness and incomprehensibility. Hey, you can't win 'em all.

Once things settle down, a strong and compelling Allen Branstein as Shylock and sly Faith Whitacre as Portia take over. Shylock insists on his hunk of anatomy and Portia, disguised as a judge (and backed up by her gentlewoman Nerissa, a powerful Hillary Wheelock) grants him his wish with, um, one major provision. This scene is as effective for its tingling tension as the comical sequences are for their manic energy.

All in all, this is one of the best Cleveshakes productions this critic has seen (and I've seen a ton), since it takes chances and the audience reaps the benefits. So throw a folding chair into the car and catch this one before it disappears after August 2.

Another theater company that is doing admirable work this summer — for free to audience members! — is the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival. With three shows in rolling repertory, this is no doubt the busiest stage in the area right now. Treasure Island by Ken Ludwig is an interesting adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, an adventurous saga complete with pirate, parrot and peg leg.

That is running alongside Crumbs from the Table of Joy by Lynn Nottage and All's Well That Ends Well by that Shakespeare fellow. The latter show is called a "problem play" by Shakespearean scholars due to the fraught "love" story between grown-up orphan Helena and Bertram, the not-so-grown-up count who is under the King of France's guardianship.

Both Helena and Bertram were brought up under the same roof, and Helena has a longstanding fixation on Bert, who couldn't care less about her. With her eyes on marriage, Helena manages to cure the King (a marvelously fulminating Matthew Wright) of a serious illness. In return, Helena is allowed to pick a hubby from the eligible gentlemen in the court, and she fingers Bertram.

Early on, All's Well is a very talky and rather complex journey. As Helena, Annie Winneg has a clear and precise delivery. But due to her rather dour mien and narrow bandwidth of facial expressions, she never really manages to craft a character we care about, positively or negatively. Colin Wulff doesn't do much better as the pain-in-the-ass Bertram, walking about as if he's trying to keep a ping-pong ball clenched between his butt cheeks.

As always, Shakespeare introduces humor and there are some funny scenes, such as when Bertram hanger-on Parolles (an amusing David Bugher) is fake-kidnapped and faux-tortured. In the role of the clown Lavatch, David Munnell triggers both laughs and winces in his carefully calculated attempts at broad comedy.

Director Paul Moser, who also directed Treasure Island, perhaps overextended himself a bit with this one. Still, there are certainly pleasures to be had in All's Well. And it's free, so who's complaining?

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