A manipulation of the truth is illuminated in The Merchant of Venice at the University of California-Irvine’s recently christened New Swan Theatre. Director Eli Simon captures the human spirit showing mercy is there for the taking, but difficult in the giving.
Richard Brestoff’s Shylock lists his reasons for not liking Antonio (Greg Beam), a Christian. In a nasally, staccato voice he states he has been spit upon and called a dog. He is an Old Testament Jew who will not turn the other cheek. A kind Bassanio (DeShawn Mitchell) is Antiono’s friend and not just because Antonio lent him money (by borrowing it from Shylock). Mitchell is a man caught up in his love for Portia (Leah Dutchin), and his character intertwines the two stories: one about Portia whose suitor must choose the right casket and the second about a Jew being deceived by a Christian, or vice versa.
In Shakespeare’s time Jews and Christians had an antagonistic relationship, and on stage this Merchant of Venice tells both sides of the story. When Portia hoodwinks Shylock in court she is genuine in helping both sides. The audience believes in her as she uses a law to twist the truth. Shylock is stubborn and calculated in getting his pound of flesh, and as he sharpens his knife on the bottom of his shoe, Antonio quivers. A girl in the audience has both hands over her mouth, but no blood is seen—only human nature.
On a lighter note, Portia's suitors have come to open the correct casket in fine style. Anthony Simone’s Moroccan suitor enters preceded by Vinny Tangherlini’s (Gong Player) one loud hit of a gong, which emphasizes the opening of the caskets. Simone speaks to Dutchin in a Moroccan accent that softens his words, while caressing her face, and Karli Blalock (Margot) quickly removes his hand from her mistress. Simone chooses incorrectly, throws the key, and storms out. Tangherlini hits the gong gently expressing disappointment and gets a laugh from the audience. Chris Klopatek (Arragon suitor) makes an obnoxious entrance with Spanish guitar player Alex Makardish. As Klopatek speaks with his lispy Castellon Spanish he reads each casket, accented with guitar, occasionally telling his servant Makardish to “Shut up!” When Klopatek becomes angry that he has chosen a mirror with a “reflection of an idiot” the guitar playing becomes angrier as does the guitarist’s expression until Klopatek commands “Shut up!”
Director Eli Simon sets the play on the cusp of Fascist WWII Italy in 1935, for obvious reasons, in a time of anti-Semitism, and he contrasts Venice, a city of commerce and scarcity, by placing Belmont in Hollywood, a city of abundance. In the end, we see the Christians in Hollywood celebrating their victory and fortunes they stole from Shylock. Simon’s translation is perfectly received as he points out how “pure intentions often yield bitter results” while showing both sides of the “human coin”. Through Shylock, Portia, and Bassanio mercy is examined in a way that shows that no one is the winner here. Even if, by law and principle, we want to root for Shylock, he shows no mercy.
In keeping with the emphasis on the lessons of The Merchant of Venice, the set and costumes unify and complement. Costume Designer Virginia Thorne’s costumes are rooted in 1935s style and Hollywood glamour. Jessica (Anika Solveig) wears a lavender, silk dress with wispy, brush strokes in yellow, orange, green and red coordinated with purple suede heels. Dutchin goes from a silk robe and cigarette to a white damask dress to an understated white silk wedding dress. Lucas Calhoun (Lorenzo) is sharp in a gray suit, white shirt, blue and red block tie with a large orange flower on his lapel. The costumes go from everyday suits and dresses in Venice to wide-leg Hollywood style pants and bomber jackets in Hollywood.
Scenic design is done by Hajar Sedaghat-Pisheh, but the impressive New Swan theatre, designed by Luke Hegel-Cantarella, is such a large part of the stage that the set only needs a minimalist touch. The stage is circular with three wood caskets across from each other and an old record player/bar. Hegel-Cantarella envisioned an Elizabethan stage to allow plays to be performed the way they were written and still speak to today’s audience. The intimate theatre has a To Kill a Mockingbird feel in the sense the audience is the spectator in a courtroom with personal interest. No stage is ever the same and this one is like no other, seating 120 with exposed particle board and bronzed railing, giving an edgy urban feeling. The eye tries to find some pattern, but the seats are asymmetrical in tri-level rows with the top two levels stacked on top of each other. This stage/theatre is also movable and weighs fourteen tons, inspiring a move to an outdoor setting this upcoming summer for a Shakespeare Under the Stars at UC Irvine’s inaugural event.
Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ current proudest achievement and newest baby—the New Swan Theatre is baptized with a trading of a human coin in UCIs conscientious, probing production of The Merchant of Venice.