Meet Antonio. He’s a little distracted. This hot-shot business guy, dressed in a sharp blazer, spiffy shoes and cool shades, is in the middle of a big deal right now — something about a pound of flesh as collateral for a loan — but that doesn’t stop him from peering at his smartphone every few seconds, as if to say, yeah, I’ve got other projects, and you’re not important enough to focus on exclusively. In an era of incessant multitasking, Antonio’s truncated attention span is a telling signifier of power in a business relationship: He doesn’t even have to give his lender, the gruff Shylock, more than 80% of his consideration.
Such is one of the lively — and very effective — modern-day moments created in the new Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Merchant of Venice.” Filled with power suits, yoga mats, boutique shopping bags and enough cell phones to fill a junior-high-school teacher’s locked contraband desk drawer, the concept makes for a brisk and telling interpretation of this often problematic classic.
It’s a fine opening to a new season.
Out of adversity can come good things, it seems, and “Merchant” proves this in both large and small measures.
In the larger sense: WSF was pretty much forced to move from its last venue in the park, across the street from the amphitheater, because of noise issues. By shifting to a space called the 13 Acre Stage in the northern part of the park, it had to give up such amenities as permanent bathrooms and a bigger stage. But, oh, what it’s gained from the move! The new space is open and airy, and on opening night we could barely hear the Concert in the Park taking place over in the amphitheater. (A few times the volume crept up, but it was never obnoxious.) There’s a gorgeous view over the stage, and thanks to a semi-stormy sky, a glorious sunset swelled into view just as the first half of the production was hitting its stride.
The stage isn’t as elaborate as last year’s, but that’s OK: the set (designed by Jarred Clowes) gets the job done.
On a smaller level, adversity also has an impact. The company had $3,000 of sound and lighting equipment stolen from the premises on Sunday night — may the Curse of the Bard forever rain down upon the perpetrators — which meant that there was no sound system or light cues on opening night. And you know what? It didn’t matter. The acoustics in the new setting are better than the old, and I heard every line. (Of course, until the festival is able to raise enough money to replace the stolen equipment, it might behoove you to move as close to the stage as possible.) Kudos to the well-articulated cast.
Director Heather Parish’s concept and Jeny Sanchez’s costumes — a sort of “high fashion meets high finance” motif — help tease out some intriguing elements in this problematic title. This is a world of conspicuous consumption, and less materialistic considerations — such as integrity and humanity — can be swamped. Thus, we’re presented with Antonio (played with nicely subdued swagger by Greg Taber) as a high-flying money guy. When his dear friend Bassanio (a rollicking good Yosef Mahmood) expresses an interest in wooing the wealthy Portia (Brooke Aiello, who has a strong connection with the text), he needs a lot of money to do it in style.
That’s when Antonio, whose fortune is tied up in the equivalent of the speculative import-export trade, agrees to pursue a loan from Shylock (Jaguar Bennett), the Jewish moneylender, who insists upon demanding an infamous “pound of flesh” if there’s a default.
“Merchant of Venice” is a highly problematic show in terms of Jewish stereotypes, of course, and, frankly, it’s tough to really pull it off without seeming highly offensive. It just isn’t all the racial stuff that makes it difficult, either. It’s actually considered one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and a large chunk of the play has more to do with the frothy shenanigans of the Portia-Bassanio story arc. I can understand why directors in earlier times made Shylock a buffoon, and it isn’t just because of racism; it’s more in tune with the spirit of the play. Certainly, there is anguish in Shakespeare’s words, but you can also see where almost every line could be played for comedy.
That said, I found Parish’s approach as effective as anything I’ve seen, including versions that deemphasized the comedy and played up the treatment of the Jews in 15th Century Venice. The theme for the festival’s season is “No one gets off easy,” and the fact that Christians and Jews both come across rather poorly gives the material a sort of an equal-opportunity sheen. The division here is religious, but it could just as well be racial, or political, or any of the myriad ways in which humans figure out how to differentiate and then discriminate.
Taber is a compelling Antonio, and he’s supported by a strong male ensemble, especially Steve Torres as Gratiano and Marcos Hammer as Lorenzo. Taryn Wettstead and Bridget Manders are well-cast as Jessica and Nerissa, respectively, and assistant director Anthony Nico Ran has a giddy turn as a gold-chain-wearing, hairy-chest-baring Prince of Morocco, played with a lounge-singer-meets-”Jersey-Shore” verve.
Mahmood and Aiello have some terrific moments together as the lovers in terms of comedy and chemistry. What I didn’t care for as much was Aiello’s interpretation of her role. Her Portia is a little shrill and loopy — sort of a loose cannon. I like the idea of her as spoiled and perhaps even a little bit of an airhead, but Aiello has a tendency to overdo it, such as the scenes in which her first two suitors try to guess which box to open to win her hand in marriage while she practically writhes in the background.
I also wasn’t crazy about the staging of both the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech and the climactic courtroom scene, which lacked a certain needed punch in terms of blocking and delivery.
At the same time, however, the sensibilities of the show remain consistent. And that’s what has the biggest impact. In that courtroom scene, one of the supporting characters takes a shot with her camera phone — presumably to share with the world at large. In this “Venice,” woe be to the person who’s out of the loop.