The Merchant of Venice

I found Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice presented by The Gallery Players and directed by Mark Harborth to be a mixed-bag experience.  I saw it on their opening night.  It seemed that certain elements of the production had not yet gelled, while some of the performances made it well worth the journey into Brooklyn.  Of course a play which, at its center, is about discrimination is unfortunately always relevant.

The play begins with Antonio wearing black standing with his back to the audience atop a fountain in a pink town square (that didn’t look completely painted yet). His friends are standing around below him.  Grieg’s Peer Gynt flute melody bursts in as the lights come up then fades out as Antonio begins speaking of his sadness while slowly turning towards the audience.  It’s a striking image, but it plays out kind of oddly when you put all of the elements together.  This oddness was a recurring theme during my experience with the show.  The music, in general, I found overbearing as it punctuated acts with classical standards or underscored monologues that I was straining to follow the words of.  The costumes I found similarly distracting.  Expect to see a fairytale panoply of rakishly floppy hats, men wearing tights as pants, ruffled collars and even a couple cod-pieces. The lighting changed back and forth a lot during scenes so I’m not sure if they were having technical difficulties or still trying to find cues.

The cast includes a broad range of expertise, from Broadway veterans to actors making their New York debuts.  The play is helmed by Dominic Cuskern who plays a sensitively fleshed-out Shylock.  I really enjoyed Cuskern’s smart, detailed and heartfelt performance.  I also appreciated the astounding depth of love that David Patrick Ford brought to Antonio, who just as boldly lashed out with some of the most racist lines of the piece.  It was interesting to see his character fully represent the opposing poles of love and hate embodied in the play.  It made me wonder if this is why Shakespeare draws our attention to this character by naming the play after the Merchant.  Erin Beirnard’s Portia also had some beautiful moments.  But not all of the actors were experienced enough to keep their difficult text active and engaging so the production (clocking in at over two and a half hours) suffered from the variance of skill levels.

We can’t be sure what Shakespeare intended 400 years ago when he wrote the Jewish Shylock in the Christian city as our “villain”.  The current trend is to make Shylock less evil and more sympathetic, which forces the rest of the characters to be more evil in their treatment of him.  This tactic was successfully employed in this production.  I bought that, in the world of this play, Shylock is often subject to unprovoked abuse and sometimes in danger of randomly being attacked in public.  Moreover, I saw that he had some reason behind his hatred.  This also helped me buy the paranoia when he admonishes his daughter to lock up his fortune with a carnival in the street.  It wasn’t a comical example of his greed, it was about his house being a likely target for trouble.  Some characters were played with more tolerance than others which also seemed timelessly natural.

It’s a difficult play to stage in the modern day any way you look at it, and yet we keep putting it on anyway.  Actors want to play Shylock, Antonio and Portia.  Audiences want to see how the overt racism of the play will be handled.  We want to see Antonio saved and Portia swoop in to do the saving.  Maybe we keep putting on this play because, with all we’ve learned in 400 years, the same nonsensical hatred between different tribes of people still leads to tragedy all the time.  I think we’re still just trying to understand why this horrible blot persists in human nature.