'Merchant' right on the money

Why continue to produce Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" when it inevitably engenders strong feelings about its obvious anti-Semitism? Because it is an interesting play.

In this 75th Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, it was an obvious choice to present both of the plays Angus Bowmer produced that inaugural year. But Artistic Director Bill Rauch also had a definite vision for this work, which opened Sunday on the Elizabethan Stage.

Interestingly, the central character in this play as written is not Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. The merchant of Venice is Antonio, and the play is constructed as a love triangle among Antonio, Bassanio and Portia. Antonio loves Bassanio beyond friendship. Bassanio, a consummate "user," has manipulated Antonio's feelings to finance his own luxurious lifestyle. Now he begs a sizable loan to woo a wealthy heiress, Portia. Antonio, strapped for cash because all of his merchant fleet is still at sea, cannot deny Bassanio and borrows from a Jewish money lender, even willing to place as collateral "a pound of flesh." Ironically, Antonio is saved from forfeiture by Bassanio's new wife.

Shylock is one of those characters that gets into an author's head and takes over the play. He is infinitely more interesting than Antonio, Bassanio, Portia or the gang of sycophants surrounding Bassanio. His ostensible role is a stock villain, the guy the audience hisses. As Shakespeare began to craft him as multi-dimensional, the fabric of "The Merchant of Venice" changed and Shylock developed a life of his own.

Rauch's unsparing production underscores the fact that none of the protagonists in "The Merchant of Venice" are really very likeable. Rauch's cast superbly conveys the surface charm of these characters without glossing over their less attractive characteristics. Antonio (Jonathan Haugen) is rather pathetic in his devotion to Bassanio. Bassanio (Danforth Comins) is a charming opportunist. He actually hits up Portia for a loan immediately after winning her hand. Gratiano (Gregory Linington) is an amusing lout, the embarrassing friend you love dearly but can't take anywhere. Shylock's daughter Jessica (Emily Sophia Knapp), eloping with Bassanio's friend Lorenzo (Daniel Marmion), robs her father, stealing even her dead mother's ring. And Lorenzo never lets her forget that she's a Jew. And then there is Shylock's knavish servant Launcelot Gobbo (Mark Bedard), who cheerfully reviles his employer and quickly abandons him for the newly rich Bassanio.

Even Portia (Vilma Silva), the ostensible heroine of this play, is no paragon. The lady is a sadist. She mocks her suitors, baits Shylock during the trial and then deliberately traps Bassanio, questioning his fidelity with the device of the ring. At the end of the play, you feel that Bassanio and Portia deserve each other and that the abandoned Antonio got the best of the deal.

But this is 2010 and you can't do a production of "The Merchant of Venice" without focusing on Shylock. Rauch cast the incomparable Anthony Heald and he is absolutely riveting. Using a Yiddish accent and speech mannerisms (generations of American sitcoms have punch lines that end in a rising verbal question, thanks to the legacy of Jewish comedians and writers who honed their skills in the resort hotels of New York's Catskill Mountains), Heald conveys a wistful Shylock who would dearly love to be accepted in Christian society without being compelled to be a Christian. In fact, Shylock reaches out to Antonio and offers him a no-interest loan with a "pound of flesh" as collateral because he has no doubt that Antonio's merchant fleet will arrive to pay off the debt.

Shylock's then intractable insistence on taking Antonio to court to collect is clearly a product of anger and humiliation. Not only did Shylock actually borrow the money for Antonio's loan from a friend and the loan has now defaulted, but Shylock's daughter has run off with one of Antonio's friends with Antonio's knowledge and probable aid. When Shakespeare set up this scenario, there was no way he could write Shylock as a stock villain, and Heald captures every nuance. (Shakespeare and his repertory company probably suffered similar slights and disdain from the court nobles upon which their incomes depended.)

In Shakespeare's time, xenophobia — toward Spaniards, Moors, Italians and Jews — was simply taken for granted. As Portia mockingly dismisses her foreign suitors (including an Englishman), Antonio thinks nothing of vilifying a Jew as a creature less than human. Since Jews were officially expelled from England in 1290, the only Jews there in the late 16th century were attached to Spanish or Portuguese embassies or were Sephardic Jews who had "converted" and managed to thrive as merchants or physicians connected to Elizabeth's court.

Shakespeare may actually have met some of these "under the radar" Jews. His Shylock very likely started off as a stereotypical villain and morphed into a complex character based on people he knew.

Rauch slyly places this production somewhere betwixt and between. Richard L. Hay's set is a combination of modern and medieval Venice — which pretty much look alike, gondolas and all. Shigeru Yaji's costumes are an incongruous amalgam of period and modern that conveys the same mood. Composer and sound designer Andre J. Pluess uses Eastern European Jewish melodies against traditional court music.

Special mention needs to go to dramaturg Judith Rosen, creative consultant Lenny Neimark and voice and text director Scott Kaiser, all of whom had the task of making "Merchant" contemporary to both periods.

"The Merchant of Venice" is not an easy play to sit through, not a summer romp in the outdoor theater. It is a beautifully executed, funny and gritty examination of a time, place and character that are as contemporary as today's headlines.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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