Even for experts steeped in early modern theatrical history, a well-directed production of The Merchant of Venice can be difficult to watch, especially during the final courtroom scene and the moment when Shylock, the Jew, is forced to give away his fortune and convert to Christianity to save his life.
Is it possible for a twenty-first-century director to undercut the shock of Shylock’s forced religious conversion, and completely divert audiences with the merry resolution of the last act, when the three sets of lovers are happily united?
In staging The Merchant of Venice at the Texas Shakespeare Festival (TSF), director Leslie Reidel came close to pulling this off with a show that is both arresting and scintillating. As part of TSF’s commitment to coaching actors to enunciate Shakespeare’s verse as clearly and coherently as possible, vocal director Jennifer Burke had a palpable influence on this production. Set designer Christopher Rhoton’s Venetian palazzo of multi-colored stone and rotating facades combined with Steven F. Graver’s richly imagined costumes to enhance the mood of both plots—one set in the folktale realm of a rich heiress’s estate in Belmont, and the other entrenched in the commercial world of Venice.
Since Shakespeare likely styled his play after Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), he conceived of Shylock as an allegorical figure from medieval drama—a stereotypical bad guy that Elizabethan audiences had grown to expect in the 1590s, when Merchant was first performed. A lesser playwright would have imagined Shylock as a one-dimensional villain. Shakespeare, however, created a well-rounded anti-hero who roundly exposes Christian hypocrisy, and challenges the ignorant prejudices displayed by his countrymen toward Jews.
Even from an Elizabethan perspective, Shakespeare’s Shylock becomes much greater than a comic stereotype. Shakespeare humanizes him, and uses him to frame a discourse between the merits of following the letter of the law and tempering justice with mercy.
Reidel was mindful of these concerns, as well as the play’s Elizabethan origins as a romantic comedy infused with games between lovers, mistaken identity, and serious discourse on the virtues of love. He took pains to infuse each scene with the comedic subtlety that Shakespeare would have intended.
Shylock, as envisioned by actor Stephen Wyman, was highly engaging and attractively vengeful during the show’s final performance. Wyman was well cast and well directed, allowing us to appreciate—and to some extent identify with—Shylock’s malice toward Antonio for forfeiting his bond. The Venetians empowered men like Shylock to fund their investments and use the courts for recourse when large debts went unpaid.
In performing the role of Antonio, the merchant who enters into a bond with Shylock to receive 3,000 ducats in exchange for a pound of flesh, actor William Green brought a highly nuanced approach. Mischa Aravena’s handling of Bassanio, the friend to Antonio who negotiates the bond with Shylock, showed that he was mindful of the character’s potential for growth from the outset. He flourished during moments when he competed with other suitors for Portia’s hand in marriage.
Brandon Lahren (Salerio) and Geoffrey Eggleston (Solanio) were consistently articulate and animated as Antonio’s friends. On the other hand, in performing Gratiano, another friend of Antonio, Blake Price came across as so loud and frenetic that he threatened the delicate balance established between the gravity of the Venetian affair and the lightness of the courtship plot.
In the fairytale world of Belmont, Meaghan Simpson was graceful and extremely funny as Portia, the astutely disarming heiress who subjects her suitors to a trial of chance to compete for her marriage hand. Simpson was equally adept in scenes when Portia disguised herself as Balthazar, the male lawyer who intervenes in the Venetian trial considering Antonio’s forfeiture of the bond. In the play’s first half, Grace Abele cultivated an understated approach to Portia’s gentlewoman, Nerissa, until later scenes when her banter with Gratiano became ham-handed and overly antic. Henry Ayres-Brown’s stint as the Prince of Aragon proved memorably understated, while Ryan McCarthy’s study of the Prince of Morocco was less subtle but effective, nonetheless.
Playing the role of Shylock’s daughter, whose abandonment of her Jewish faith would not have fazed Shakespeare’s audiences as much as it does today’s, Caitlin Cavannaugh offered a solid portrait that contrasted nicely with the antics of Portia and Nerissa. Though Nathan Salstone is to be commended for his entertaining interpretation of Launcelot Gobbo, I could have done without seeing so many of these protracted comic interludes featuring the servant of Shylock (and later Bassanio).
The Texas Shakespeare Festival performed The Merchant of Venice from June 30 – July 30, 2016, at the Turk Fine Arts Auditorium at Kilgore College in Kilgore, Texas. Visit www.TexasShakespeare.com for more details.