Oh, Merchant of Venice. It’s a great play, full of ups and downs, drama and humor, love and revenge… and open to so many misinterpretations and pitfalls. How are we supposed to deal with the anti-Semitism? Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic to have written something like this? Was that just the culture of Shakespeare’s age? What about the bromance between Antonio and Bassanio? Is it anything more? And suddenly you’re mired in a bog of politically correct ways to play it, with the sensibilities of today taking center stage instead of the plot and story itself.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the Merchant of Venice. But I always approach productions of it with trepidation and concern that Shakespeare’s story will somehow get lost amidst the clamor of what people think it should be.
I shouldn’t have worried about Portland Actors Ensemble’s production. (I should never worry about their productions, since I’ve been going regularly for more than 10 years and have yet to see one I didn’t like!) Director Bruce Hostetler and his stellar cast have woven the many seemingly conflicting elements of the plot together into a beautiful, seamless story that doesn’t jar where it’s not supposed to, that makes you walk away thinking about deeper things than social prejudice.
One key to understanding this play is recognizing that Shylock is a villain. He is also a Jew, but I believe that was more of a necessary plot device for Shakespeare than any statement about race. In order for his plot to work, Shakespeare needed a money lender to be the baddie. In today’s world, we have many options for that kind of role – loan sharks, banks, the Mafia – but in Shakespeare’s day if you wanted to borrow money, you went to a Jew. Simple as that. James Peck does a masterful job at reminding us that Shylock is not a nice guy. He gloats. He grumbles. He laughs at Antonio’s need. He cares more about his money than he does about his daughter, Jessica (as brilliantly shown when he kisses Jessica goodbye… and then comes back to kiss the briefcase of money goodbye). Even in some of the more “sincere” speeches about how Jews are people, too, Peck’s delivery reminded us where it’s all going – Jews are people, too, and therefore can be vindictive and vengeful and evil.
Another reminder that Shakespeare doesn’t have it in for all Jews is the character of Tubal – Shylock’s associate. Tubal is actually the first one to bring up the idea of mercy in the trial scene. And when Shylock pays no attention to him, Tubal (Enrique Andrade) refused to have anything more to do with him. Though he didn’t say anything, Andrade made it perfectly clear that Tubal does not condone his fellow Jew’s actions and that not all Jews are cut out of the same cloth. Jews are people, too, which means they don’t fit into boxes and won’t be tidily categorized… even in a Shakespeare play that leans fairly heavily on stereotypes.
For a play that we tend to think of as being all about justice and law, there’s an awful lot of romance going on almost constantly. Lorenzo (Benjamin Newman) and Jessica (Megan Chambers) win the Most Adorkably Sweet Couple Award for long, awkward silences and many blushingly sweet looks. Gratiano (Benjamin Sheppard) and Nerissa (Elizabeth Gibbs) win the Most Likely to Argue Award for bringing together two characters with plenty of spice and spunk. But the Most Unusual Couple Award has to go to Salanio (Clinton Clark) and his cell phone – a delightfully modern device that rendered many an info dump and long monologue advancing the plot actually entertaining and fun to watch.
Let’s not forget Bassanio (Sam Burns) and Portia (Jenny Newbry) though. Burns’s Bassanio is earnest and a good friend and slightly more mature than his sidekicks Gratiano and Salanio, but is still impulsive and has absolutely no business sense whatsoever. When things go skew-whiff, Bassanio is a loyal if somewhat ineffectual helper. He’s also delightfully naïve and totally smitten with Portia. Newbry’s Portia provides a good counter to this. She’s 100 percent girl and very much in love with Bassanio, but you can tell she’s the brains behind most of what goes on. She bats her eyelashes and turns on the charms to get her unwelcome suitors the Prince of Morocco (Alistair Morley Jaques) and the Prince of Aragon (Enrique Andrade) to pick the wrong boxes. And she makes plans to help Antonio when all Bassanio can think of is being there with him. Together they are lovely.
I could wax eloquent about so many things… but time and space prevent me. I’ll only mention Launcelot Gobbo (Michael Kutner) and Old Gobbo (Alastair Morley Jaques) as wonderful examples of Shakespeare’s Clowns. Kutner’s version of Launcelot’s shoulder angel and shoulder devil had me in stitches… and his Brando impersonation was great! And to whoever thought up the Rats-on-a-Stick… disgustingly brilliant. ;-)
Through all this I discovered a theme that I hadn’t seen before, one that I need to think about more and unpack later – the letter of the law vs. the spirit. It’s there in the courtroom scene… it’s there in the lottery for Portia’s hand in marriage… it’s there in the dispute about what really happened to the rings… and it’s a good reminder of what’s really important in life. But that’s a discussion for another time.
For now… Merchant runs until July 20th. It’s definitely worth the watch, if you can make it. Details at portlandactors.org.