BWW Reviews: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at Stratford Festival Should Not be Missed!
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE-arguably William Shakespeare's most controversial play, is being tackled this season at the Stratford Festival for the first time since 2007. Under the direction of (Artistic Director) ANTONI CIMOLINO, this production does not shy away from the controversial nature of many characters' anti-Semitic views, and in fact, highlights the danger of such views by placing this production in a timeline leading up to the Holocaust. The constant reminder of what is to come provides a dark and almost eerie backdrop to this production, creating a thought-provoking dark 'comedy' for the ages.
In order to assist his friend Bassanio in his pursuit of the beautiful Portia, the titular merchant, Antonio borrows money from Shylock-a man who he has never gotten along with, and has always treated poorly. Shylock is Jewish, and has experienced much discrimination from Antonio and others throughout his life. He jumps at the opportunity to have power over Antonio, and when the money doesn't come in, he is eager to punish him. It is the quick-witted Portia who turns the tables on Shylock, This play is certainlya comedy, and there are many laugh out-loud moments, but there are also moments of tragedy. As Shylock is slowly stripped away of everything that he feels makes up his identity, it is impossible for the audience to simply see him as a comic villain.
Scott Wentworth was not supposed to portray Shylock in this production; however, after actor Brian Bedford had to back out for medical reasons, Mr. WentWORTH took on the challenge of playing the two most famous Jewish characters in theatre. The other, of course, being Tevye in this season's production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Sometimes he even portrays both characters on the same day! His performance here is nothing short of phenomenal. As SHYLOCK, he portrays a complicated man, who happens to be Jewish, who has clearly experienced some hardship, discrimination, and trauma to bring him to the seemingly hardened person that he is today. Flawed, and human, SHYLOCK experiences his own tragic arc during this otherwise comedic play-leading him to become the person that most of the other characters had perceived him to be the whole time. You must see Scott Wentworth in this role. And afterwards, go see him in FIDDLER!
The entire cast is excellent-Tom MCCAMUS portrays the complex, melancholic merchant, Antonio, who seems far to willing to give up without a fight, and allow Shylock to take his 'pound of flesh'. Antonio's motivations, and the reason for his sadness are often debated by those who study Shakespeare. The most common theory is that he is in love with Bassanio. MCCAMUS keeps the mystery alive by portraying a complicated man with an apparent martyr complex whose motivations are never quite made clear. MICHELLE GIROUX is captivating as the quick-witted heroine, Portia, and TYRELL CREWS is charming as her suitor Bassanio. As Jessica, Sara Farb portrays a young adult, desperate to rebel against a parent who she finds to be smothering. Of course, in this story, this plot is played to the extreme, but even so, Ms. FARB is very relatable as Jessica-trying to find her place in the world by pursuing her own interpretation of independence. TYRONE SAVAGE is fun and charming as her lover Lorenzo.
Other performances of note are JONATHAN GOAD as the very anti-Semitic Gratiano; RON PEDERSON as the hilarious and exhausting Lancelot Gabbo; and SOPHIA WALKER as Portia's handmaiden, Nerissa. A special shout-out must go to ANTOINE YARED whose hilarious portrayal of the Prince of Aragon brought the house down.
As fabulous as the actors' performances are, much of what makes this production a success lies within Mr. Cimolino's direction, and with the choice to set the play at the brink of the Holocaust. There is foreshadowing of what is to come in several scenes throughout the play-the most notable being a scene where Lorenzo and Jessica are trying to spend a romantic evening listening to music on a gramophone, but it is constantly being interrupted by Nazi propaganda. Lorenzo and Jessica cannot possibly fathom what the hate speech will eventually lead to, but it is unsettling for them all the same. It is also likely unsettling to them because it is a constant reminder of Jessica's Jewish heritage and the way she abandoned it, along with her father. This brilliant scene alone is worth the price of a ticket, because it shows how Shakespeare can continue to be interpreted and adapted all these years later.