The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is rightfully considered one of  Shakespeare’s “problem plays” with its dark overtones of anti-Semitism and a feud between a Jew standing obstinately with the Old Testament (“Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him.”) and Christians clinging righteously to the New (“The quality of mercy is never strained.”). Shakespeare does not make it as black and white as it sounds and eventually paints himself into a corner that requires some questionable poetic license to resolve at least the immediate conflicts. It was so controversial that for nearly a hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, nobody performed it.

Anyone with only a passing familiarity with The Merchant of Venice would most likely say it is the story of Shylock the Jew and his insistence on extracting a pound of flesh as payment for an unfulfilled debt. Missing from that brief synopsis is that Antonio, the merchant who owes the debt on behalf of his much beloved friend, Bassanio ( who needs the money desperately to woo the fair Portia), has repeatedly scorned Shylock publicly even to the point of spitting in his face. Shylock is vilified at every turn by nearly everyone in the play.

For himself, Shylock revels first in the invention of the flesh guarantee, later in the promise of collecting on it and finally in the possibility of being revenged for all the injustice he has suffered. Antonio’s supporters, Christians all, express great dismay at Shylock’s unwillingness to show even the slightest sympathy toward Antonio even as they display not a whit of mercy or Christ-like compassion toward him.

Greg Burgess as Shylock and Matthew Sparacino as Bassanio and Heather Howard as Portia (Photos: Teresa Castracane)

The trial resolves with a series of last minute, very questionable decrees handed down by a woman (Portia) impersonating a learned male lawyer. Shylock is stripped of half his fortune and forced to agree to convert to Christianity. Outrageous by any standard, then or now. Shylock has been obdurate and even eloquent in standing up for his Judaism (“Hath a Jew not eyes?”) and his rights as a Venetian citizen. At the end he folds up like a cheap card table and slinks away with nary a whimper.

So, who is the bad guy here? The play ends happily for everyone but Shylock. Was justice done or was insult added to injury? It raises some vexing questions about human nature and exposes some of the hypocrisies of both religions. But one also has to wonder if Shakespeare took the easy way out in resolving the conflicts he set in motion and masking it all with an endlessly fascinating character study.

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company does a superb job in presenting The Merchant of Venice almost completely unadorned. The setting is the nave of the Kittamaqundi Community Church in Columbia, best known locally as Oliver’s Carriage House. No stage to speak of. A bench set between two pillars with chairs for the audience set up on both sides almost surrounding the small playing area. Throughout most of the play, the church lighting is turned on full, illuminating the entire area. The Merchant of Venice “unplugged” one might say.

A great deal of careful thought and hard work has gone into this production. Little things that might go unnoticed in a proscenium theatre with staged lighting are bigger than life in this unique setting. It all seemed very natural and flowed easily, although the easefulness belies the excellent shadings and nuance of gesture, vocal inflection and facial expression employed to bring the poetry of Shakespeare’s writing energetically and very pleasingly to life.

Greg Burgess in the role of Shylock is an inspired bit of casting. He uses the uniqueness of his physical persona in contrast to the rest of the cast to full advantage and walks a fine line in keeping the character believable without being evil. He does not, however, give complete justice to the famous “Hath a Jew not eyes” soliloquy, racing over it without savoring some of Shakespeare’s finest writing.

Nearly all the performers are well practiced with Shakespearean verse which is often perplexing to American actors. Scott Alan Small as Antonio was particularly comfortable with the language and did a very nice job interpreting his role simply and straightforwardly. The same could be said for Matthew Sparacino in the pivotal role of Bassanio.

Heather Howard, as Portia, was at her best in her scenes with her various suitors and particularly convincing when she fell into Juliet mode with Bassanio. She dropped the ball a little with the beautifully contrived, “The quality of mercy” speech. It deserves more than the lawyerly declamation she gave it.

Kelsey Painter, who played a convincing Emily Webb in CSC’s production of Our Town, is astonishingly good as the fool, Lancelot Gobbo – a characterization as far away from Emily Webb as you can get. She bets the house on an audacious interpretation and runs away with it.

James Jager, a veteran at CSC, plays two comic roles exceedingly well. His main character, Gratiano, hit the bulls-eye with some fine comic grandstanding in a charming and very winning way. Equally convincing were Molly Moores as Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, and her lover, Lorenzo played by Vince Eisensen.

The rest of the cast were uniformly solid and, taken together, the company melded remarkably well as an ensemble.

According to Founding Artistic Director Ian Gallanar, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has big plans for expansion and collaboration with some other well-known theatres in the area. They have built up something very special right where they are. If they succeed in spreading out without losing that specialness, you will be hearing about it. This is a very fine company that walks its talk and delivers consistently high quality productions.

The Merchant of Venice runs thru March 24, 2011 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company at Oliver’s Carriage House, 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia, MD.

The Merchant of Venice

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Teresa Castracane
Produced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Larry Bangs

Highly Recommended

Running time: Two hours and ten minutes including one 10 minute intermission

Other reviews
 Mike Giulano . Baltimore Sun


  1. Steve Beall says:

    Great review of what is undoubtedly a great show – can’t wait to see it.

    As for CSC’s growth plans, it’s worth noting that CSC already has a track record of thoughtfully expanding their range and venues with terrific results.

    From origins in a Baltimore park only – what? 9 years ago? – they’ve carefully but steadily transplanted the qualities that make their approach to theatre so effective into a variety of settings. From the large-but-intimate and dramatically evocative summer shows in “The Ruins” high on Mt. Ida above historic Ellicott City, to black boxes, to high school auditoriums (touring for high school audiences), to the compelling “moving productions” in the Ruins and on a private school campus … and now to the charmingly intimate space at Oliver’s Carriage House – the shows just keep getting better.

    It’s not by accident. They put a great deal of thought into what it is that creates the specific kind of theatre experience they want to offer. They believe that there are core elements to their kind of theatre that can work nearly anywhere – and with any classical or classic theatre text. So far they’ve been proven right, and as audiences, we’re the richer for it.



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