By Ruth Ross
As the lights came down on the Shakespeare Theatre’s polished, well-acted production of The Merchant of Venice, I realized why this play by Shakespeare is so rarely performed today. Billed as a comedy, this complex tale of intolerance, prejudice and materialism features a cast of generally distasteful characters behaving in disagreeable ways. They lie, cheat, seek revenge on each other for slights big and small, and treat anyone different from them with disdain and, in the case of Shylock, violence. After spending two and a half hours with these folks, I felt like I needed to take a shower.
It’s been 17 years since STNJ produced The Merchant of Venice. At that time, I wrote that “Shylock is usually seen as a reflection of Elizabethan England’s widespread anti-Semitic prejudices, but Shakespeare transforms a traditionally one-dimensional character into a more complex figure, one for whom the audience feels sympathy” and that “we can’t help but feel for the old man when punishment is meted out in the form of a forced conversion and forfeiture of his fortune.” This time out, director Robert Cuccioli has taken a different tack. In his Director’s Notes, he likens Shakespeare’s Venice to the situation in our nation today “where a small number of wealthy individuals hold tremendous power” and we’ve become “an instant result-driven generation, consumed by accumulation—of goods, power, and celebrity—and even love is something one can compete for on television shows, acquire through an app, or seek in an unreal virtual reality”—all of which points up Shakespeare’s universality and the feeling that not much has changed since the 16th century. It’s a disturbing and depressing view, one that emphasizes the subversive power of theater, especially its ability to hold up a mirror to our best—and worst—selves.
If you are unfamiliar with The Merchant of Venice (or don’t recall it from high school English), the basic plot concerns a playboy named Bassanio, who borrows 3,000 ducats from a Jew, Shylock, so he can woo an heiress, Portia (above). His close friend Antonio guarantees the loan with profits expected from his shipping business, on the condition that he forfeit a pound of his flesh if he cannot pay. Smug and superior, Antonio signs the bond, sure such a situation will never come to pass. When he loses his ships at sea and finds himself bankrupt, however, Antonio faces Shylock in a tense courtroom scene where a young legal scholar finds a loophole that negates the bond, leaving Shylock to forfeit his fortune and forced to convert to Christianity. Doesn’t sound like much of a comic situation, but Shakespeare leavens the serious mood with his usual repertoire of stock comedic characters like smart-mouthed servants, three pairs of lovers, a doddering old man, damsels in disguise and missing rings to keep the action light.
Cuccioli directs with a sure hand, moving the action steadily along without rushing over the more serious aspects of the plot, but the play drags on after the climactic courtroom scene. The cast is uniformly superb and convincing, even when portraying the more despicable characters. As Antonio, the eponymous Venetian merchant, Brent Harris (top image, far left) is superciliousness personified; his maltreatment of Shylock (even to spitting on him) belies his noble bearing. John Keable’s callow Bassanio (top image, center) sets the plot in motion with his asking Antonio to loan him the ducats so he can woo a wealthy young heiress; we’re not sure he loves her more than her inheritance. His sidekicks, Salerio (Tug Rice), Solanio (Jay Leibowitz) and Gratiano (Ian Gould, above right) are snotty popinjays; the latter is especially obnoxious, taunting Shylock with insults at the loss of his ducats and daughter, and even throwing a coin at him in the courtroom.
Portia and her maid Nerissa, Melissa Miller and Rachel Towne (left), respectively, make fun of Portia’s suitors, the Prince of Morocco (Ademide Akintilo) and the Prince of Arragon (Jeffrey M. Bender), rolling their eyes and making faces as the men contemplate which casket to choose. Both men play their roles with pronounced accents and large gestures, setting themselves apart from the “polite” Venetian society, thus appropriate objects of scorn. That Portia should dupe the Venetian court into believing that she, an uneducated girl, is a lawyer shows not only supreme chutzpah but a disdain for the law and the sentence that will be pronounced. The two Venetian women are not even above deceiving their husbands and then using the information to punish them. Amaia Arana’s Jessica is pouty and duplicitous, easily won over by the eager enthusiasm of her lover, the Christian Lorenzo (Anthony Michael Martinez).
Comic relief (if you can call it that) comes in the role of Shylock’s dopey servant Launcelot Gobbo, played with élan by the company clown Jeffrey M. Bender. He’s well matched by Robert S. Gregory as his father. The two have some funny shtick with a stick and the latter’s inability to see.
If you’re wondering about Shylock, well, I’ve saved the best for last. Andrew Weems (right, center) has perhaps the most difficult role, playing a one-dimensional character, the long-suffering outsider, insulted and spat upon by the very men who borrow money from him. And he’s really quite sympathetic in the first act; when he asks, among other things, “Does not a Jew bleed,” he sounds reasoned and passionate at the same time; it’s hard to see why even his enemies wouldn’t see the error of their ways. However, he descends to the depths of their materialism when Jessica runs away with Lorenzo, foaming at the mouth over the loss of his ducats and jewels—and almost as an afterthought, his daughter. During the courtroom scene, he refuses payment of the debt, puts on what looks like a butcher’s apron and sits down to sharpen his knife on his shoe. He’s hell-bent on revenge and no one will stop him. Even when Portia gets the Duke to pass the harsh sentence, it’s hard to feel sympathy for him. Everyone in the play has been corrupted by money and materialism.
Setting the action in 1910 allows for some nifty costume decisions by Candida Nichols. The men wearing spats look especially pretentious; the women in white references their social and economic status, for only the rich could wear a color that needs constant laundering to look fresh (and that necessitates servants). And Shylock’s black gabardine suit, hat, prayer fringes and skullcap would be at home in Crown Heights at any era. Brian Ruggaber’s revolving two-level set of marble arches, columns and stairs adorned by ironwork and cast iron tables and chairs is both functional and “Venetian”; it is beautifully and atmospherically lit by Michael Giannitti to point up the passage of time and change of venue. Käri B. Berntson’s sound involves string music at the beginning and a vaguely Eastern European signals Shylock’s appearance.
If this production of The Merchant of Venice makes you feel uncomfortable, then Director Robert Cuccioli and his cast have done their job. Yes, the anti-Semitism is vile, but so is the way the Venetians treat those who are not like them. So is the grasping materialism that pervades all levels of their society. In so many ways, this play is a mirror for our time—and our souls. For that reason, this is an important production.
The Merchant of Venice will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison, through June 4. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.