By Linda Dillman
Breathing new life into the Bard is a challenge Todd Phillips faces every year.
Phillips, who directs Canal Winchester’s annual high school Madrigal with a student cast and crew of more than 100 individuals, adapts many of Shakespeare’s full-length productions into a format suitable for a dinner theatre setting.
Last produced in 2005, this years’ presentation, “The Merchant of Venice,” is one of Phillips’ favorite.
“I use more than a dozen shows in some type of rotation that puts at least a decade in between performances,” said Phillips. “I’ll confess to a personal affection to ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ It’s filled with such great characters, a thought-provoking plot and timeless quotes.”
Phillips said the play is a challenge.
“Most people see it as a heavy, dramatic production,” said Phillips. “In fact, the first half is generally a comedy that takes a very dark turn in the middle of act three. After the dark courtroom scene, it returns to a much lighter attitude for its conclusion.”
Twelve years ago, Phillips cast twins in the roles of storytellers Salerio and Solanio, who keep the audience clued in on the action taking place on stage. This time, 10th grader Zach Di Toma is portraying Solanio alongside puppet—yes, an actual puppet—Edward de Vere as Salerio.
The casting was Phillips’ humorous nod to a bit of 16th century controversy. The real Edward de Vere was the 17th Earl of Oxford and considered by some scholars to be the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.
“My character (along with his extended arm sidekick) is more of a comic relief,” said Di Toma. “Mr. Phillips was the one who came up with the idea of using a puppet for comic relief. ‘Ed’ and I had an immediate bond. We’re like two halves of the same coin. ‘Ed’ is pretty lazy and likes to rest and control me.”
Creating a connection with the puppet helped Di Toma develop and keep in character as duo entities. Not only is it his first time working with a puppet, it is also his first time on stage. However, it is not the sophomore’s first foray into creating a voice beyond his own.
“I’ve grown up doing voices like Severus Snape, Harry Potter and a lot of nationalities. I like coming up with characters,” said Di Toma, who plays guitar and is a member of an Ultimate Frisbee traveling team. “I study people a lot. A lot of things went into deciding a voice for Edward. He talks a little like if Stitch from ‘Lilo and Stitch’ spoke with a New Jersey accent. I also incorporate a lot of physical action into Edward.”
The dinner side of the production is served by student actors and singers and professionally catered; a tradition started 28 years ago.
“Our caterers assemble a quality meal that fits within our budget, but also seems to fit the time and place of our story,” said Phillips. “This year’s show taking place in Venice means the meal has a bit of an Italian flavor. Once the caterers prepare the meal, we have a team of adults who help get the meal to the students who then serve it to the guests.”
Phillips said some of his younger students are anxious about serving, but he reminds them they are working in teams and said guests realize they are high school students and not a professional wait staff.
“The Merchant of Venice” dinner show is Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. The luncheon show is Feb. 19 at 2 p.m. and tickets are $10. All seats are reserved and there are no seats sold at the door. For information and reservations, call (614) 836-1448.