Quill Theatre’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ gives us exciting, controversial Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a “problem” play.
Most of the plot deals with a spoiled, but very intelligent rich girl yearning to break out of her gender prison to make a difference in a man’s world. The rest of the story deals with a Jewish moneylender who demands a deadly price from a forfeited debtor.All in the guise of a romantic comedy. Hence the “problem.”
More to the point, productions have altered the balance of the play to feature the moneylender’s story, putting it front and center. The character of Shylock, the moneylender, is so well written and complex that he has become the tour de force role all great actors want to play. He has but 366 lines in the play yet so pervasively has this character seeped into the social consciousness that even today an entire religion is unfairly filtered through his less attractive qualities.
Ignorant and small minded people generalize Jews as “thrifty,” “cheap” and “money hungry.” So deleterious is the reference, that “Jew” is unflatteringly used as a verb. Cheapskates are called “Shylocks.”
There can be no argument that The Merchant of Venice is a profoundly anti-Semitic work. However, Judaism is not the point. Shylock is the “alien” and that could be any race or culture that has been subsumed by the majority around them. Substitute any minority and change the slurs appropriately.
In Quill’s very fine production there are dizzying heights and elements of interpretive controversy.
The story is not complicated. A man borrows money for a friend so he can woo a rich lady. The man goes to a moneylender who asks that the bond be a pound of that man’s flesh. The bond is forfeited and the moneylender wants his flesh. The rich lady schemes to thwart the bond. Almost everybody lives happily ever after.
In the spirit of outdoor summer theatre, the production leans towards being family friendly, choosing not to highlight the more controversial possibilities in this play such as homosexuality and male gigolos with less than honorable motives.
A family friendly Merchant of Venice is fine if this were a true comedy, which it would be if Shylock were not such a tragic figure, but a buffoon-like comic villain. Yet this production works towards treating Shylock as a sympathetic victim. So we have a production at odds with itself.
A sympathetic Shylock is one we feel for when he is spat upon, kicked, scorned and called horrible anti-Semitic names. He is rarely, if ever referred to by name but rather as “Jew” or “the Jew.” The slurs become personal and uncomfortable for the audience to bear, Jewish or not.
This argument is but an intellectual exercise. There is plenty to admire in this production.
As Shylock, Matthew Radford Davies soars. He has such a firm grasp of character and detail that you can’t take your eyes off of him. Mr. Davies gives a subtle, nuanced and masterful performance throughout.
The chief offenders to Shylock are Antonio and Gratiano (Brandon Bruce).
If the audience has a surrogate in this drama, it would appear to be Gratiano, whose anti-Semitic vulgarity reminds us of Nazi propaganda. Mr. Bruce plays Gratanio with great energy and charm, transitioning from a dangerous foe to a comic lover on the turn of a ducat. He was perhaps at times over-exuberant and could have been reigned in to focus his energy.
Antonio, is quite another matter, he is ironically, the play’s best Christian, a champion spitter-at and kicker-of Jews.
Iman Shabazz gave a steady and effective performance as Antonio. Mr. Shabazz is a man of color. There was resonance to the sight of an Italian Jew holding a knife to a black man’s chest. Could it have been a diversionary tactic pitting the historical fate of the black man as slave against the historical fate of the Jew as slave to soften the anti-Semitism? Maybe. It was, however, slightly confusing since the text affirms that Antonio is the owner of slaves.
Dr. Jan Powell, Quill Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director and Director for this production, has cut the play significantly, never an easy job. On the one hand we thank her for her choice of brevity while we as an audience sit in the summer heat and swarm of night bugs, but on the other hand, rich character information is sadly missed. It’s a Catch 22.
The ladies are affected most. Nerissa in particular, although delightfully played by the lovely Chelsea Burke, loses lines that would have fleshed out her character. Portia’s opening scene with Bassanio has been truncated, depriving her of some nuance in that relationship.
Lorenzo (the charming and handsome Axel Burtness) convinces Shylock’s daughter Jessica (the lovely and demure Rebecca Turner) to leave her father, convert to Christianity but steal as much of her father’s riches before she does.
Lorenzo loses his encounters with Shylock’s houseboy, the clown Gobbo (the raucously delicious Thomas Cunningham) depriving him some character heft. The unkindest cuts of all come during his beautiful poetic scene at Belmont with Jessica, some of the loveliest love poetry Shakespeare ever wrote. True, it is over long and unnecessary to advance the plot, but it’s so darned pretty and Mr. Burtness and Ms. Turner recite it so well.
Given fuller measure are the funny men.
Miguel Girona is new to the Agecroft stage but gave rock solid performances in several minor roles and brought majesty and quirky braggadocio to the Price of Morocco. We do miss his scimitar, Dr. Powell.
Luke Shares as the Prince of Arragon and Gobbo’s blind father hit the funny bone square on and is delightful to watch.
Thomas Cunningham (of the deliciously raucous fame) is in his third Quill Shakespeare play of the summer. While solid in the first two, he is finally sufficiently warmed up to give his opus performance. Energized like the Roadrunner, he manages to give frantic detail to some very difficult moments.
The lovers Portia and Bassanio are problematic as individuals but luscious when together.
As Bassanio, Mr. Bromfield has natural ease and command onstage and handles the language beautifully but seems too nice. We like him. We really like him. Which is good in some ways. In others, a family friendly, non-bisexual, non-gigolo, non-sleazy Bassanio is slightly dull. Just saying.
This play belongs to Portia. Portia is complicated, mischievous and more than a little dark. She rules her mountaintop retreat. She is manipulative. She is a progressive woman who has been given the power to exercise her will, equal in work or in love to any man.
Addie Barnhart is a lovely Portia but she doesn’t seem to find the powerful center of her character. She has grace and dignity but lacks complexity.
The costuming was troublesome. The Prince comes into the trial scene wearing Judge’s robes and the Judges come in the trial scene wearing suits and hats like a comedy team. Gobbo’s M.C. Hammer pants were way cool (but for another century).
The sound was somewhat bothersome. The heavy Renaissance music did not pair well with the dialogue, overpowering the speech. I did however like the “Tell me where is fancy bred” song, done simply and beautifully.
Quill does Shakespeare and we need Shakespeare in our lives. We need to expose our children to Shakespeare. I am always going to encourage you to go to Agecroft Hall or any other venue to experience Shakespeare done well by a superior company.
Quill Theatre’s Merchant of Venice runs now through July 31st at Agecroft Hall. You can snag tickets here.
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