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The Quality of Comedy Is Not Strained Hot

Eric Minton
Written by Eric Minton     July 17, 2012    
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The Quality of Comedy Is Not Strained

Photos: Michael Bailey

  • Merchant of Venice
  • by William Shakespeare
  • American Shakespeare Center
  • June 12-November 25, 2012
Acting 4
Costumes 4
Sets 3
Directing 5
Overall 5

Some don't like The Merchant of Venice because of its overt racism. Some don't like it because all of the characters are despicable in some way, even the purported heroes. Some don't like it because of the ridiculous storyline that serves as the main plot—while the subplot is gripping theater—and because of obvious holes in both plots. Finally, some don't like it because they see productions by directors who turn Shakespeare's portrayal of racism on its head, transform the colors of his characters into black and white, and "fix" his storyline. A packed house in the Blackfriars loved the play—and, based on reactions throughout the evening, many in the audience were seeing it for the first time—because director Jim Warren left Shakespeare alone while a talented cast infused every color of their characters with vivid psychological ink.

Despite the warts in its composition—and yet, because of the warts in its characters—The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's great works, that of a playwright whose abilities had matured to the point that he could paint a romantic comedy in watercolors and then, while it was still wet, press it through a socially profound wringer. Several of his plays—almost all his plays, really—separate Shakespeare from his contemporaries in composition of language and characters. Merchant is one of the few plays (Richard II and Measure for Measure being the only others?) that separates Shakespeare from his contemporaries in daring, where he is willing to break conventional modes of composition—like using a comedy to hold a troubling mirror up to the society of his time—and to create characters who refuse to be boxed into common stock labels. It is, after all, the stereotyped Jewish villain who speaks the most poignant humanist speech of all time and the spunky romantic heroine championing the redemptive powers of mercy who turns out to be a peerless schemer and unapologetic racist (even for Shakespeare's time).

When you get the opportunity to see a Merchant not reinterpreted through a 21st century prism, relish the chance and enjoy Shakespeare at his compositional height. Aside from the two above-mentioned famous speeches, Merchant is full of such transcendent moments so often lost in productions that reimagine the characters or cut elements as superfluous. Shylock's treatise on slavery pierces through the trial scene like the shard of a broken mirror precisely because such a sinister villain is speaking it (at the time Shakespeare wrote the play, English merchants were just then getting into a slave trade they would come to dominate). Despite his own scamming of Portia and her devious manipulations to make sure he chooses the right casket, Bassanio preaches a marvelous sermon against hypocrisy that should be a daily lesson for all of us today. Lorenzo wafts the play's most poetical passage when he remarks on the music and the night, a tender piece of poetry that either loses its meaning if directors portray him and Jessica as out of love with each other or is literally lost altogether if directors butcher the fifth act because it doesn't "fit the tone" of the rest of the play (whose tone? Shakespeare's ultimate tone is the fifth act, and that poetic passage in particular).

The brilliance of Shakespeare's text rarely—if ever—emerges as fully as it does in the hands of the ASC actors in this production. Chris Johnston plays Lorenzo as a man who loves both the beautiful Jessica (wit-driven and definitely beautiful Abbi Hawk) and her wealth; Johnston is also a consummate musician, and he provides the music of the night himself, playing guitar while he and Jessica lie on their backs on the Blackfriars stage, an interlude of lovely peace demarcating the trial and the ring scenes. Clearly, this Lorenzo has come to realize he loves Jessica and the art of romance more than money, and when he receives the deed of gift, courtesy of Shylock at the end, both Johnston and Hawk play it as a confirmation of their marriage. Johnston also makes a hilarious turn as the Prince of Arragon, dandily choosing among the caskets, using an effete accent that stumbles over the letter "m" in a speech that has almost three dozen m's, many "m" and "m" pairs, and repetition of "many men."

James Keegan is a force of a Shylock. Formal but with a hint of schemer rippling underneath his dignified veneer, this Shylock has taken the tact of in-your-face dignity and a posture of superiority to counter the racial taunting he endures (this production doesn't hold back the spitting at, near, and on Shylock by other characters). His loss of Jessica is both a loss of daughter and a financial hit; the Christians make comic fun of his weighing both losses equally, and Shakespeare softens the seeming conflict when he presents Shylock in person, but, really, Shylock is displaying true human nature, the kind that life insurance companies have long profited from. It is only at that moment of being doubly distraught and learning how much of a hit he has taken to both his heart and wallet during his meeting with Tubal that Keegan's Shylock suddenly seizes on his course of revenge on Antonio (astutely played with pompous benevolence by Rene Thornton Jr.). Revenge then becomes the pathological drive that turns Shylock to unabashed villainy, and Keegan's Jew even has trouble hereafter maintaining his dignity as he taunts the Christians and rages in the court, thinking he's in control.

Thus he doesn't see the trap Portia sets for him. Tracie Thomason is a delightful Portia, exuding charm like Glinda the Good, an image made physically visual by the oversized, jewel-and-lattice collar ruff with a twelve-foot-long lace train that gives Portia the look of a Leptosia nina butterfly. (In a bare-stage theater with no sets, ASC, as Shakespeare's own company did, uses costumes to dazzle, and costume designer Jenny McNee dresses these Venetians in ornate clothes that seem to have been somehow undressed from real Renaissance paintings and handed over intact to the actors to wear.) How we laugh at Portia's ethnic slurs and racial aspersions and how we wink at her entrapment of Bassanio because she is so darn cute. As Balthazar, Thomason's Portia reveals just how much playacting makes up her persona, playing the part of the student law doctor so believably that nobody sees the web she's weaving. Evidence that Portia stage-manages the whole trial is in the letter the duke reads to the court: "We turned o'er many books together. He is furnished with my opinion ... bettered with his own learning," says the letter from Belario introducing Balthazar to the court. She starts with the quality of mercy speech, which clearly impacts all the court (save for one), most notably Thornton's Antonio. Even Keegan's Shylock is swept along until Portia gets to the line "That in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy..." As her tone turns decidedly Christian in theology, Shylock turns it off. "My deeds upon my head!" he answers. Next step: She decrees that Shylock has the law on his side, but gets him to establish the exact wording of the bond as his legitimacy. Then, she turns that exact wording against him. Thomason's Portia knows exactly what she's doing.

So does Shakespeare, for his theme throughout this play—from Bassanio's trial with the chest, through Shylock's trial with the bond, and Antonio's trial concerning counter-revenge, to Bassanio's trial with the ring—is the quality of mercy. Even after his defeat, Shylock gives in on this score, granting the deed of gift to Lorenzo and Jessica (though he's sick to do it). It's a moment of reconciliation in the spirit of mercy all around, except for one person: Gratiano. He gets in the last word at the trial: "In christ'ning shalt thou have two godfathers. Had I been judge thou shouldst have had ten more, to bring thee to the gallows, not the font." These read like triumph and could be played to cheers, perhaps; except that it runs opposite to the tenet of mercy both Portia and the Duke have established and the acts of mercy we've seen from everybody else. This production plays up this discordant note by having Gratiano spit on Shylock's prayer shawl then drop it to the floor as he pretends to hand it to him. He also makes a bullying move at Shylock as the Jew leaves the room. All the while, the rest of the court (and the Blackfriars audience) watches in uncomfortable silence. We don't know Shakespeare's direction for this moment in the original production of The Merchant of Venice, but I suspect such discomfort was his intent.

What makes the moment most effective is that this Gratiano is anything but a villain. He is Bassanio's bonhomie comrade and, in a revealing performance by Benjamin Curns, a clown. At this point in his career, Shakespeare seemed to have two clown-like characters in most of his plays. Merchant has the clown Launcelot Gobbo (John Harrell at his silly best); but no other clown is apparent in the script, though there are single scenes with the fools Arragon, the Prince of Morocco, and Old Gobbo, Launcelot's father. Curns plays Gratiano in the tradition of Tranio (Taming of the Shrew), Speed (Two Gentlemen of Verona), and Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet), and he is an energetic ball of fun from start to finish, even in his taunting Shylock about "a second Daniel" in the trial scene. But he's not much fun in that three-line expression of merciless abuse as Shylock leaves the court.

About Old Gobbo, mentioned above, this production of The Merchant of Venice stays so true to the text that Warren maintains the scene with Launcelot's "sand blind" father (Tracy Hostmyer). Most productions drop it, for good reason: It's a 75-line, one-joke scene, a lame joke at that. It has little bearing on the play's plot, seems to have no relevance to the play at all, and seems particularly dated. Or is it? Abuse of people with disabilities is kin to abusing people on account of their race, religion, and ethnicity, and it continues today, too. Shakespeare's sensibilities seem to be 400 years ahead of his time (or, indeed, for all time). That Launcelot's cruel behavior toward his blind father comes right after Launcelot's wonderful fiend-vs.-conscience routine is Shakespeare's artistic courage, pushing the laughs so far out from his characters that they surreptitiously become reflections in the very selves of the audience.

This does not make for a dour play. Oh, no, The Merchant of Venice is a comedy and ASC plays it as funny stuff with a lesson in mercy we not only hear but also see through characters who are as good and bad, altogether, as you and me. The key to the overall comic tone is in the casting of Gregory Jon Phelps as Bassanio, a lovable guy who knows he's a ne'er-do-well. Just as he's deep in debt, he's always in over his head on intellectual matters, too, and after the clearly comic casket-choosing scenes with Morocco (Ronald Peet) and Arragon, Bassanio's moment with the chests in this production is just as much fun. He acts like a contestant on The Price Is Right, seeking help from Gratiano (who keeps sending him to gold) and getting help from Portia's expressions and her musicians' overt clues. In the ring scene at the end, though he at first would like to escape or, as he says, cut off his hand rather than admit he had given away Portia's ring, Phelps's Bassanio ends up displaying a stout sense of honor and honesty that proves a rubber wall to Portia's Machiavellian ways: She learns the quality of mercy for herself. Gratiano, of course, gets the last line of the play, having finally learned for himself the quality of mercy via Nerissa. We laugh, but in a way we've taken Gratiano's journey ourselves.

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