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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Merchant of Venice’

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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.

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PREVIOUSLY
‘Merchant’ steps forward in time
(preview of production): Published Friday, June 25
Plucky Fresno troupe presents ‘Merchant’ (preview of new venue): Published Sunday, June 20

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Merchant of Venice’"

So glad for the cast, this sounds very good. I’m happy I’ll get to see it next weekend.
Thanks for the tip on sitting closer, and I also received an earlier tip from one of the cast members to beware of sitting far on the right near the sprinklers . . .

Heather says:

The sprinkler situation seems to be under control. . . but I’ll see if I can arrange a personal drubbing for you, Aileen!

James says:

MERCHANT is one of my favorite plays and Shylock is one of my favorite Shakespearean characters. I went to see the WSF production with high hopes. I was not as taken with the production as Mr. Munro was. I found the concept rather shallow and the overuse of cell phones was a bit self-indulgent. I wanted more character, more moments, and less conceptual cuteness. I was rarely amused by the production, which would be okay if I had cared for the characters, but that wasn’t the case. Certain performers were more successful than others at exploring the richness of the characters they were playing. Mr. Mahmood and Mr. Torres seemed to have a fuller understanding of the nuances of the script. Mr. Nan was quite memorable in his small role. I realize that WSF is a community theatre and I should judge them accordingly. But a certain level of proficiency is needed for Shakespeare to work for me at all. I wanted Portia to be more contained and refined; I wanted Shylock to have more humanity, and not be a caricature of the man he was claiming not to be. Overall, I want stronger directors who focus first on telling the story and exploring the characters. Shakespearean comedy is more than mere silliness. I would love to see WSF come up with some funding for an occasional professional guest artist. It’s time for the company to take a giant step forward.

LindaMacG says:

No matter how it is presented, “The Merchant of Venice” is anti-semitic. Having said that, the cast was wonderful; the lines were delivered w/ power & feeling. We attended on a night w/o lights & sound 2* theft. Players projected well & we enjoyed the performance. We look forward to King Lear. Thanks!

Debora Bolen says:

Staging issues aside, I found Jaguar Bennett’s delivery of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech on opening night to be extremely moving. This was where the humanity of the character came through in the extreme. For me, this one glimpse into Shylock’s pain, loneliness and anger due to lifelong verbal abuse and ostracism by the society in which he lived was quite enough to explain his complete, isolated coldheartedness and desire for revenge. For the first time, I felt Shylock’s later treatment in the play was overly cruel. Thanks for a great performance.

Brandon says:

The production was so so. But WSF hasn’t had a really exciting production since Daniel Moore directed TAMING OF THE SHREW. At MERCHANT, I knew what to expect. However, I wish the director would not sit in the back of the house and try to lead the audience into clapping at the end of every scene. Let the audience respond as it wishes. This is indicative of an attitude toward audiences at WSF. That they are stupid. The Shakespeare is dumbed down and over-acted for fear that the audience won’t otherwise get it. The minute I see someone trying to be funny, they cease to be funny. And boy, did this cast try to be funny. The actress playing Launcelot was the worst offender.

George says:

@Brandon, I never felt that the show was being dumbed down for the audience. It’s outdoor theater where audience members are anywhere from 4 feet to 100 feet away from the stage, and expressions are exaggerated to accommodate that. My family and I thought Launcelot was absolutely amazing.. her expression and commitment to the character left us in stitches. Need I remind you that this show is a COMEDY? Because of the modern reading of Shylock’s character, much of the comedy is diminished, which may make the surrounding comedic scenes seem jolting. However, I don’t feel they were over-acted. The director did not sit at the back of the audience on the night I attended, so I can’t comment on the applause issue, but overall, I was impressed with every member of the cast. I did not feel there was a weak link in the entire ensemble, and I feel it’s a must-see for any theater-goer.

jamie says:

I must agree with James and Brandon above. The concept is pretty much stolen from an RSC production in the 80′s (think WALL STREET with cell phones) and most of the actors are doing Jerry Lewis impressions, trying way too hard. While I agree that many of the supporting characters did fine work, Shylock and Portia were weak links, and they are supposed to be the leads. I wish this company would step up.

Brandon says:

Hey George, I think you and I differ on what a comedy is, and what great comedic skill in acting is. Big and loud is not the ticket in my book. And I don’t value pantomiming the language as a substitution for playing rich characters. I like to be able to discover what is funny in the context of experiencing inhabited characters and good story telling. Whenever I think of truly great comedy performances, I often think of how un-funny the character found his/her situation. Some of the performances in MERCHANT worked for me more than others. There was a believable sense of fraternity between Bassanio, Antonio and Gratiano that made them more interesting. I may be unfair to this community theatre company, a I have seen a lot of professional productions of Shakespeare, most of which were performed outdoors. However, I totally disagree that the requirements of performing outdoors justifies the calibre of performance I saw at this show. I want them to be better.

Kendall says:

Mr Munro, you are far too kind. This production was dreadful. It didn’t know what it wanted to be so it was like those bad Disney movies with a little something for everyone. A little comedy, a little pathos, a little bluster. People would be better served to get Shakespeare from Netflix rather than waste their time seeing this. I must agree that the setting in the park was the best part of the evening.

Lori says:

Overacting to the 10th degree. Looked good, but souless. Wish it was better.

Carolyn B says:

I don’t understand the extreme vitriol directed at this production, but it seems to happen with most reviews of WSF’s shows.

I saw the show last Saturday night and plan to go back later in the run to see in what ways the show’s nuances change. Did everything suit my taste? No. I try not to expect anything but entertainment and thoughtfulness when I see a production– and this one fit the bill all the way around. Perfect? No. But since I don’t have any preconceived ideas about the right way to do theater, I probably manage to enjoy more than others.

A few specific things:

I didn’t see a ‘caricature’ in Shylock. He had a chip on his shoulder, yes, and it grew to tragic heights. But he also had moments of real feeling, justified rage and paternal tenderness.

Some want Portia to be more contained and dignified? That’s fine, I guess. But I’ve seen those Portias (a few of them on Netflix!) and they are a little bit dull. This Portia may have been more difficult to digest, but she was real and alive and engaged in what was happening around her. Larger than life in all the good ways.

Overacting? I’m not sure what that is, really. I was sitting in the back of the seated audience and I could see both small and large gestures, hear every word, understood the language and the meanings of most speeches, without feeling like it was dumbed down. I saw actors using their bodies as well as their language, which is great! Outdoors or no, it is a large space to fill up and I found the acting styles to be very appropriate.

The ensemble was excellent and no one seemed out of place in the world that the director created on stage. Even the ever-present cell phones added to the world– as they do to our own in an ubiquitous way. Everything made sense and was well thought out. It was challenging at times. . .again, a few things not to my taste, but overall I came away thinking about Shylock and Portia and Antonio and all the rest, wondering how people can treat each other that way.

And that makes a successful show, in my opinion, at any level.

Sally R. says:

I think Shylock did an amazing job. It’s such a tough role to really give a lot of depth to because, when you look at it, he really isn’t the nicest guy. He literally wants to KILL Antonio, and doesn’t even respond to Portia’s pleas for a Doctor to be present as A’s heart is cut out (as that would be the humane thing to do). So, commenters, don’t go painting him as the nicest guy who gets picked on by society. There are two other Jews in the play who seem to be accepted just fine: Jessica and Tubal. There’s something ruthless about Shylock that earns him the extra ostracism. Mr. Bennet played that unbalanced anger nicely!

Jenifer says:

I saw the play tonight, and I thought for the play that it was, the actors did a very good job, especially the leads. I thought Lorenzo and Jessica were the weaker links, but overall, for a small scale Shakespearian festival and the resources they have, they do a good job. This is a difficult play, and I’m not sure it is one that leaves us with a significant understanding of human nature or the flaws that are common to all humanity and that lead to men and women’s undoing. I think it perpetrates prejudice, and anti-Semitism, maybe even a little ignorance, as we can see by the comment from Sally above. Apparently she believes Shylock is a real person and, therefore, the nature of a real man. What she fails to distinguish is that Shylock is a despicable character, not because he is any man, but specifically because he is a Jew, and that, unfortunately, is the lesson of the play.

In other words, because he is a Jew, he wants to KILL Antonio. He is not merciful because he is Jewish, and the only way to be good is to be Christian, and the only ones that are merciful are Christians. This is the point. Of course Jessica is fine because she runs out on her father, steals his money, his jewels, and she trades the ring her father gave her mother in their early years for a monkey. Oh, yeah, but she leaves him for a Christian. So, who cares if she rips her father’s heart out and humiliates him.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Antonio has for many years, cursed Shylock, humiliated him, kicked him, spit on him, spoke ill of him to everyone, tried to ruin his business, and refuses any overture of friendship, which was the attitude of most towards the Jews of that time.

It seems quite reasonable to me that Shylock felt a bitter, angry, and revenge? We may not exact it, but it is human to think about it. But, the point again is that Shylock is not real, but Shakespeare’s creation and a reflection of the society he lived. Shakespeare chooses to make Shylock demand a pound of flesh and show no mercy, so what does that say about the author and the people who watched it, jeered, and laughed at the humiliation and total loss Shylock suffers.

And finally in the end, what is merciful? To take a man’s livelihood, his property, to force him to convert to another religion? Or is it merciful that to ad injury to insult, he must bequeath everything at his death to the man who stole his daughter and laughs at his punishment, while he lives happily ever after? I don’t see the mercy in that. But I do see a play that still casts light on the ignorance of those in today society, and I worry that it doesn’t do much to comment on the wrongs of prejudice, discrimination, and injustice that still befalls many in our society.

So, anyway you look at it, I don’t see how this play can ever redeem itself, no matter how good the performance. It would take an exceptionally strong actor and director to really capture the humanity of Shylock and the ignorance and stupidity of that society, and allow us to see the cruelty and intolerance that festered during Shakespeare’s time.

And so, I think the actors were wonderful, the experience of Shakespeare in the park is wonderful, and the company gives what they can with the resources they have. I only wish more people would come out and support them because that is the only way they will grow and the performances will deepen. So, I hope rather than criticize, people will come and support one of the few cultural and livelihoodvenues we have or we may lose a small gem.

I’m looking forward to King Lear!