THEATER : Shakespeare Playing a Role in Her Success : Grove Festival's Elizabeth Norment Grows

Last summer, in what she describes as "an exhilarating and exhausting experience," Elizabeth Norment played two of Shakespeare's best-known female characters--the inventive Rosalind and the witty Beatrice--in productions, respectively, of "As You Like It" and "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Grove Shakespeare Festival.

Norment is now adding another Shakespearean heroine to her repertoire: She appears as Portia in the production of "The Merchant of Venice," which opened Friday at the Grove's outdoor Festival Amphitheatre.

Because of its depiction of Shylock, the cunning Jewish moneylender who demands a pound of flesh as payment for a debt, "The Merchant of Venice" has been criticized for painting a degrading portrait of Jews. Indeed, its very mention in the post-Holocaust era often generates controversy. For the Grove production, theater officials consulted with area Jewish educators and community leaders and presented a public forum about the play and its issues.

But along with addressing issues of religion, "The Merchant of Venice" also produced one of Shakespeare's most vexing female protagonists. As Norment noted during a recent afternoon interview at the theater, it is Portia who proves to be "the fulcrum" of the highly charged play.

In the famous courtroom scene in which Shylock insists he be paid the pound of flesh promised him by the titular character Antonio as penalty for defaulting on a loan, it is Portia, masquerading as a man, who finds the legal loophole that leads to the Jew's humiliating downfall.

To Norment, Portia "travels the farthest" in the play, "growing more than any of the other characters."

Explained Norment: "She starts out a sheltered and inexperienced woman who is also intelligent--but with untested principles. At the end, she comes to understand the duality in human nature, including her own weaknesses.

"She is the most challenging role I've ever played," said the 38-year-old actress, who has amassed more than a decade of professional experience since receiving her master's in fine arts from Yale University in 1979.

Grove artistic director Thomas F. Bradac, who is directing "Merchant," called her to ask whether she wanted to play Portia.

"I was immediately interested," said Norment, who notes that the play has ready appeal to actors "because of its incredible characters" as well as its instant notoriety, of sorts, due to the strong feelings it arouses both in and out of the theater.

Norment, who is not Jewish, says she "absolutely" understands the concerns over "Merchant" productions here and elsewhere.

"But I don't believe that Shakespeare would have written such a well-developed character (as Shylock)--and given him some of his most memorable lines--if he hadn't liked that character," she said.

To Norment, the play exposes "everyone's foibles. . . .

"I don't see this as a play about Jew-bashing. I don't think it ever was."

Instead, she said, "intolerance, short-sightedness, impatience and cruelty are indicted. The beauty of the play is in the movement--the awakening of compassion. Those who don't make that journey are the ones indicted."

As for playing Portia, Norment gets to play both female (in elaborate empire-waist dresses which "luckily allow me to breathe") and male, when she masquerades in doublet and hose with pageboy wig and feathered cap.

"I like this boy's outfit very much," said Norment, acknowledging that while the device gives the play a "fairy-tale element," it also allows for the character's metamorphosis.

"When Portia goes to Venice, it's an important awakening. She's not only traveling--probably for her first time--she's also disguised as a man. Suddenly, she feels liberated and free!"

As for Portia's experiences in the courtroom with Shylock, Norment said, "that's her emotional journey."

While Portia's actions result in "a lot of cruelty"--Shylock is jeered, stripped of all he owns and forced to become a Christian--Norment stressed, "Portia unleashes it indirectly. . . .

"She taught Shylock something, but he also taught her--about the effects of cruelty and about dignity and pain."

Portia also learns firsthand the importance of forgiveness--which allows her to be reunited with her husband. "But now she knows much more about herself--including the fact that she's no angel.

"She knows she had a dark side--a dual nature," said Norment, who recounted Portia's line to her husband, Bassanio: "Swear by your double self and there's an oath of credit."

The play concludes with "an ostensibly happy ending," Norment said, "but there's is more lurking beneath the surface.

"The author has shown us certain situations and is leaving it up to the audience to make their own moral decisions."

It was a role in "Beethoven's Tenth"--written by and starring Peter Ustinov--that brought her to Southern California in 1983. "The play came to the Ahmanson (Theatre in Los Angeles). When it left, I stayed."

Norment, who lives in Los Angeles, has done small roles on TV soaps, major guest roles in prime-time series and, "some fairly forgettable" TV movies. (Among the exceptions: "The Final Days," about Nixon's downfall, in which she played a special prosecutor who grills Rosemary Woods. She's also done commercials as well as several small movie roles--and a number of leading roles on stage.

More recently, Norment starred as Jean in the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre production of "The Early Girl." And, prior to her stint as Portia, she appeared in "Can I Have This Dance?" at L.A.'s Colony Theater.

Still, she counts last summer's back-to-back Grove productions of "As You Like It" and "Much Ado About Nothing" among her most important credits, because "a lot of people in the business either saw them or heard about them. I've been working steadily ever since."

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