It is Venice in the middle of the 16th century – or the mid-1920s, in New York’s Little Italy, as director Ethan McSweeny would have it; it doesn’t matter. Salerio (the excellent Andy Murray) has just heard something that is making him laugh. “I never heard a passion so confused,” he explains, “So strange, outrageous, and so variable/As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:/’My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!’” Salerio struggles to contain himself. “‘Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!/Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!” The struggle is over; Salerio is screaming with laughter, literally rolling on the ground. “‘A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats/Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!’”
The Jew Shylock (Mark Nelson), a widower, has just lost his daughter Jessica (Amelia Pedlow), his only child. She has just left him, abandoning her house, her community, her religion and her heritage to live with her Christian lover (Matthew Carlson), and has stolen a vast portion of Shylock’s fortune as well. It is the bitterest moment so far in Shylock’s life, which seems composed of nothing but toxic blossoms, but more bitter moments will come. He will face humiliation, and the loss of what he has earned, and be separated from what he is and has been. He will come to desire death.
It’s a comedy.
All of Shakespeare’s plays invite interpretation and explication, so that we who view them from four hundred years’ perspective can understand and embrace them in our own lives. But certain plays – this is one, and The Taming of the Shrew is another – cry out with a need to be understood. Is Merchant really, as Theodore Bikel once opined, “an irredeemably anti-Semetic play”? Certainly it was played so during Shakespeare’s time, with Shylock invariably a comic, red-haired, hook-nosed figure, fulminating impotentily againt the clever Christians. But Shakespeare planted the seeds of doubt in his text.
When Shylock delivers the speech which begins “Hath not a Jew eyes?” – one of the most famous in all the canon – it is impossible not to feel the injustice that has been dealt to Shylock his whole life, and for those of his Nation, for the whole of the millennium. And when, earlier in the play, Shylock confronts Antonio, the Merchant of Venice (Derek Smith), and reminds him that “[y]ou call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog/And spit upon my Jewish gabardine/And all for use of that which is mine own,” it is hard to think of Antonio as the victm.
So my quarrel with the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Merchant – technically brilliant, well-acted, full of small insights and pleasures both large and small – is that I could find no take-away, no overarching revelation which helped me to grapple with the hard facts of this story. Though he means to bring about Antonio’s death, Shylock is nonetheless the moral center of this story, the only character who is both true to himself and honest with those around him. Are we to take joy when he walks into his living hell?
Well. Before we get into all that, let’s first take a brief summary of the story, and then celebrate the manifold things which go right in this good production. Bassanio, here played as an impecunious slick by Drew Cortese, seeks to woo the fabulously wealthy Portia (Julia Coffey). Her late father has established a stern task for those who would seek her hand: to guess which of three (gold, silver and lead) boxes holds her picture. Bassanio is sure that he can solve the riddle. If he does, he wins Portia and access to her fortune. But before he can do that he must have three thousand ducats to finance his trip to Portia’s Belmont and the attendant show of finery he must produce there. He turns to his dear friend Antonio for financial help.
But Antonio is not liquid, and so Bassanio must resort to the moneylenders, and use Antonio as his guarantor. Christians being forbidden to lend money for interest, only Jews are in the banking business, and Shylock is the most prominent among them. Remembering the many acts of contempt Antonio directed at him over the years, Shylock grandly waives interest – but demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh as collateral.
Fortified with Shylock’s money and dressed in Italianate finery (Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are out of this world) Bassanio, accompanied by his garrulous friend Gratiano (Aubrey Deeker), sails to Belmont. He wins Portia’s heart and solves her father’s test, in that order, and as an added bonus Gratiano finds true love with Portia’s aide-de-camp, Nerissa (Liz Wisan). But the wild celebration that follows is interrupted by a shock of bad news: all of Antonio’s business ventures have failed, and he is unable to pay Shylock, who now demands his fatal collateral. Bassanio and Gratiano flee Belmont to stand with Antonio as the Duke (Drew Eshelman) decides his fate.
The denouemant, when it comes, is surprisingly quick and brutal and McSweeny, to his credit, does not shy away from any of it. Part of its effectiveness is due to Smith’s Antonio, a strong, even charismatic man who floats on a cloud of self-righteousness and arrogance. Part of it is due to Coffey’s glistening Portia (but remember! “All that glisters is not gold!”), all self-confident wit and poise, who imbues the deepest part of Bassanio’s despair with optimisim and purpose. (Her offhand delivery of the famed “quality of mercy” speech, as an observation from one reasonable person to another, enhances its effectiveness).
But it is mostly due to McSweeny’s meticulous production, so profoundly observant that it approaches a casual reverence – not just for the text, but for the audience as well. It is a visual feast; every corner of Harman Hall’s capacious stage is alive with information, and sumptuously rich.
McSweeny chooses to reimagine Merchant as set in jazz-age New York, and he establishes his theme with authority from the very first instant (set designer Andrew Lieberman is a most accomplished accomplice). Lowlifes – Salerio and his thuggish buddy Solanio (Tim Getman) among them – prowl the smoky streets, and everyone everywhere is on the take. The boozy citizenry violate the prohibition statutes with impunity; at one point a cop takes a bribe, and delivers a portion of it to the lordly Duke, who accepts it with disdainful satisfaction.
It is an environment, as literary associate Drew Lichtenberg points out in his program notes, in which the principal business is the buying and selling of human flesh. The play’s motive force is Bassanio’s desire to marry Portia for money; he finances it with the currency of Antonio’s friendship. The clownish servant Launcelot Gobbo (the amusing Daniel Pearce) frees himself from Shylock, only to immediately sell himself to Bassanio. Bassanio courts Portia with money borrowed from Shylock, and at the same time Jessica escapes into her lover’s arms with a dowry comprised of money stolen from Shylock. Indeed, human relationships mean nothing in and of themselves; but only as currency for what they can get. The moment which most humanizes Shylock is not his “cut me, do I not bleed?” speech but the moment that he realizes that Jessica has sold her mother’s ring in order to buy – a monkey. “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys,” he cries. In this environment, is a mere pound of flesh such remarkable collateral?
McSweeny nails this concept, in part by giving us a rich panorama of this teeming commercial life. Watch as Antonio, Lorenzo (Carlson) and Gratiano schmooze over coffee in the plaza; behind them, largely hidden by the handsome buildings, are other tables, with other coffee-drinkers and newspaper-readers, suggesting a venue which stretches on indefinitely. Or observe as Portia, Bassanio and their party celebrate his riddle-solving and their engagement. A jazz band has been playing offstage, but it stops, and its tuxedo-wearing conductor creeps up to the very edges of our perception to see what is transpiring, baton in hand. He is Carl Cofield, who has, a few scenes ago, played the Prince of Morocco, got up in entirely different dress. It is a subtle touch, requiring real effort to bring it off, but McSweeny and this fine cast make that effort, and it pays off for us.
By “fine cast” I means specifically Smith, Cortese, Coffey, and a number of notable supporting performances, including Deeker as Gratiano and Cofield and Vaneik Echieverria as two of Portia’s unsuccessful suitors. Deeker, who has become a first-rate actor, here presents a character who could have been neurotic and annoying – an empty-headed talker, full of a discomforting nervous energy. But Deeker manages to make him sympathetic – an ingratiating Gratiano – in the same sense that a lively puppy is sympathetic; and in the end, when he grows into a great big menacing dog, we are not entirely surprised. As for Cofield and Echieverria, they give full comic range to their buffoonish characters, and make their Princes so delightfully full of themselves that we almost don’t notice the despicably racist lines Portia utters after one of them leaves.
Fine acting, beautiful set, meticulous production, gorgeous – even intimidating – sound (Steven Cahill, doing his usual excellent work) – why don’t I walk away from this fully satisfied? One of the reasons might be that though I bought Mark Nelson as Shylock, I was not captivated by him. Nelson’s Shylock seems to be in a bath of misery, punctuated by rage throughout, even in what should have been his triumphant moments – for example, when he fully realizes that the arrogant Antonio, who had so offended him, wants his help. Shylock’s fall is more dramatic, and his fate is more moving, when he is brought down from a great height, but here his destruction, gruesome and heartrending though it is, seems just one more painful moment in a lifetime of agony. Nelson is an excellent actor, and McSweeny has obviously thought this production through in great detail, but all I can tell you is that it left me not fully satisfied.
Or maybe the problem is a deeper one, which – as Bikel believes – no production can resolve. Maybe it’s impossible to have any morally satisfying resolution, or even enjoy a good laugh, in a time and place as morally bankrupt as the Venice of Merchant of Venice. And even in the Bard’s own time, people may have figured that out.
During Shakespeare’s life, it enjoyed an enormous popularity. Richard Burbage played Shylock broadly, with a red wig. Its last production while the Bard was alive was in 1610.
After that, it was not produced for a hundred and fifty years.
The Merchant of Venice
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Two hours forty-five minutes, including one intermission
- Alan Zilberman . BrightestYoungThings
Jonathan Padget . Metro Weekly
- Susan Davidson . CurtainUp
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Leslie Milk . Washingtonian
- Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
- Jenn Larsen . WeLove DC
Jordan Wright . MDTheatreGuidee