BWW Review: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Trades Up And Pays Off
Southwest Shakespeare Company's second offering of its 23rd Season is THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and it is, to use the Bard's words, a palpable hit.
Contemporizing Shakespeare's plays isn't an original concept, but its application in the current production works especially well and reflects a series of astute decisions by director Kent Burnham that enhance the work's accessibility, relevance, and poignancy.
In a pivot from the traditional staging, Burnham has dressed his cast in the garb of 1929 New York City and The Hamptons. When the ensemble isn't front and center, the characters are visible offstage, puttering about or reading or lounging, creating an environment of activity that permeates and enlivens the entire set. The lighting is bright, all the better to contrast the darker forces at work. The space is open and airy, allowing ample room for movement and for the verse to breathe. These are smart choices, they work, and they feed the cast with a setting that sparks their individual performances.
At the center of this classic, stand two iconic characters, both highly principled in their own ways, distinctively opposite sides of Shakespeare's uniquely crafted coin:
On one side is Shylock (played with painful solemnity by Mike Traylor), the usurer, the object of anti-Semitic scorn, for whom a deal is a deal as matter of both good business and honor. That he may exercise his principle beyond reason when demanding a pound of flesh as the cost of a debtor's default is the stuff of jurisprudence.
It is to Portia (Alison Campbell), on the other side, that, in addition to sorting out a mix of comical suitors (all played with verve by David Dickinson), the charge will fall to mediate Shylock's claim and seek justice.
It is and always has been, admittedly, a difficult and shaky experience to watch Shylock's drama and fate unfold while the giddy subplots of romantic relationships rock and roll. It is a tension that causes one to wonder about Shakespeare's intentions and, thus, has been the subject of numerous analyses. In his review of Howard Jacobson's Shylock Is My Name (set coincidentally in 1929 New York), James Lasdun, the novelist and poet, writes, "The figure of the unassimilated Jew, defiantly "other" in skullcap, gabardine and fringed garment, has been a source of Gentile unease for centuries. It is what fuels the main plot of The Merchant of Venice, and its corollary - Jew-baiting - is what gives the play its uncomfortable immediacy. We know this story; its ramifications are still playing out: the Holocaust, Israel, Gaza. Part of its disquieting power, in Shakespeare's telling, is its unstable moral perspective: are we watching a play about antisemitism, or an antisemitic play?"
"Are we watching a play about antisemitism, or an antisemitic play?" That is the question! It is, at least, one of the questions then as well as the relevance of the issues inherent in the play that make MERCHANT such an altogether absorbing, intriguing, restless and gratifying experience.
Kent Burnham has created a solid platform for both reflection and entertainment and can now add THE MERCHANT OF VENICE to a string of creative and inspired successes, most notably last year's thoroughly delightful Wittenberg. His cast has acquitted themselves well in defying gravity and presenting an uplifting and provocative performance that bears witnessing.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE runs through October 29th in the Mesa Arts Center's Nesbitt/Elliott Playhouse.
Photo credit to Tom McCoy