Friday, December 9, 2016

Margin Notes: Merchant of Venice

Leo Goodman and Michael Satow as Shylock and Antonio,
with Joshua M. Riffle and Emily Loewus as Salanio
and Jessica. Photo by Andrew Arvin.

Seen on: Thursday, 12/8/16.
My grade: A.

Plot and Background
In love with Portia (whose father had set a puzzle to dissuade unworthy suitors from her hand), Bassanio entreats his merchant friend Antonio to lend him money so that he may properly woo her. Not having the money himself (but expecting returns on several ships at sea), Antonio turns to the moneylender Shylock to supply the sum. Shylock, remembering many past mistreatments at Antonio's hand, agrees to lend the sum, with the stipulation that should Antonio not repay him, he should give to the moneylender a pound of his flesh. While Bassanio goes off to win fair maiden, Antonio's ships are lost at sea, and his bond to Shylock is forfeit. Then there's a big courtroom scene, a famous speech or two, and a bit of crossdressing, because this is Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice is presented by Hamlet Isn't Dead, a Shakespeare company dedicated to performing Shakespeare's works in chronological order.

What I Knew Beforehand
I have many strong opinions about this play (it makes me really freaking angry how much glee is taken in punishing the Jew and stripping him of his religion, let's leave it at that) and have seen it done numerous times. I'm also familiar with - and have reviewed past productions by - the company Hamlet Isn't Dead.


Play: Seasoned as I now am to Hamlet Isn't Dead's productions, I can summarize their style - unadorned and intimate staging (often alley or thrust playing spaces), immaculate yet disarmingly casual text work, and a sense of fluidity and play. One of director David Andrew Laws's primary goals for this production in HID's mission is to remind us all that Shakespeare intended the "problem play" that is Merchant of Venice to be a comedy - and he achieves this goal handily. Peppered throughout by song (including pre- and post-show mini concerts), squired by the guitar (or banjo or mandolin) toting pair of Solario and Solanio, and running at a bright and brisk ninety minutes, this Merchant marks the first time I was able to watch without getting angry, and actually enjoy the story and its players. I could enjoy the interplay of the smaller characters, the hyperboles of the clowns, the wit of Portia and Nerissa, and the delicate intricacies of the shifting power dynamic between Shylock and Antonio (Shylock and Antonio, by the way, are the only two characters who don't know they're in a comedy - a dichotomy that bolsters both the light and dark elements of the narrative by throwing them into relief). The answer to how Laws achieves this feat lies not only in his confident and playful staging, but in the judicious cuts made to the text. Most significant among these cuts are the grotesque extremes around the problem of Shylock - on both sides of the conflict. The antisemitic verbal abuse thrown at him by the gentiles is reserved only for his beleaguered servant Gobbo (which makes Antonio and his plight easier to swallow), Shylock's "comically" mercenary grief that his jewels were stolen, and most importantly Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity as his final punishment - all these are cut. With these excesses of nastiness removed, we can instead see only the antipathy between Shylock and Antonio, and how Shylock - a soft-spoken, reasonable-seeming businessman - can be driven to the point of bloodthirstiness he reaches in the trial. When this is the cruelest act of the narrative, rather than all the rest, somehow balance seems better restored, and it is easier to follow the rest of the characters to their happy conclusions. I am thinking, though, of the revisionist adaptations I have seen this year, such as Ivo Van Hove's The Crucible on Broadway and Daniel Sullivan's Troilus and Cressida at Shakespeare in the Park - both productions tinkered with context and with authorial intent, for better or worse. Laws's director's note in the program indicates he is aware that there are changes he is making to the play as we know it. Unlike the above mentioned examples, however, he is not adding in non-canonical content, nor recontextualizing moments. I do wonder, with the nastiness cut out, if it is still the same play. Honestly, though, I prefer this version. As Laws points out, Shakespeare wrote for his audience, and HID is performing for its audience. One of the joys of the malleability of Shakespeare is how endlessly and variably his work can be performed. HID hasn't mangled the text - they've cut, perhaps, a pound of flesh away, but it wasn't too near the heart that it did damage. Perhaps it was just shaving off some diseased tissue.

Cast: Michael Satow makes an engagingly sympathetic Antonio, the play's titular merchant, a man who sees the melancholy underpinnings of the narrative more clearly than his friends. As his antagonist, Leo Goodman's Shylock is reasonable and even charismatic in his ruthlessness, which not only helps erase the caricatured memories of Shylocks past, but becomes increasingly terrifying as he calmly and logically demands his pound of flesh. These two and their performances are the anchoring weights for the frivolity dancing round them. Dylan Arredondo's robust Bassanio and Christopher Brown's ingratiating Gratiano - with his Bartholomew Cubbins supply of sunglasses - have a good playful energy with their respective partners, Mary McNulty's spry and clever Portia and Samantha Maurice's everywhere-at-once Nerissa. Joshua Mahaffey and Joshua H. Riffle, as Solario and Solanio, are the evening's charismatic unofficial emcees, strumming and singing through scene transitions, and even jumping into the action as some of Portia's suitors - each with an accent that takes a whirlwind tour of continental Europe. There is a gentle cameraderie among the whole cast - reinforced by the pre-show jam session (which includes Freddie Stevenson, in costume as Shylock's friend Tubal, with yarmulke firmly pinned on, playfully riffing with the rest of the cast) and the curtain call song, and perhaps this, too, is a message from HID to its audience - we're all in this together, for better or worse.


Running: Now playing at Westbeth Artist Community (Hamlet Isn't Dead) - Opening: December 14, 2016. Closing: December 17, 2016.
Category: straight play
Length: 1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: David Andrew Laws. Assistant Director: Megan Greener.
Cast: Leo Goodman, Michael Satow, Mary McNulty, Dylan Arredondo, Samantha Maurice, Christopher Brown, Michael Luca, Emily Loewus, Joshua Mahaffey, Joshua H. Riffle, Freddie Stevenson.

Mary McNulty as Portia, with Joshua Mahaffey and Joshua M. Riffle
as Solario and Solanio. Photo by Andrew Arvin.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much, Zelda! We hope to continue your seasoning with us. :)

    For any interested readers, tickets are still available for the rest of the run here: