Theater Review: “The Merchant of Venice”
If you haven’t hemorrhaged over the grim news surrounding Swiss bank UBS’s $2.3 billion rogue trading loss, then Henley Street Theatre’s production The Merchant of Venice reads like a headline in the Wall Street Journal that investment bankers and stock traders are behaving badly, again.
Business ethics in Venice permeate as tenuously in director James Ricks’ modernized, conspicuously commoditized interpretation as it does on Wall Street these days.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, William Shakespeare’s tragicomedy is controversial for the anti-Semitism that subverts the business relationship between the two main characters: Antonio, the eponymous merchant of Venice in need of a loan and Shylock, the detested Jewish moneylender. While this production has its assets (Ryan Gallagher’s lounge-music sound design, Andrew Bonniwell’s pastel, somber lighting, and Stephanie O’Brien’s sharply tailored costumes all coalesce together perfectly to transport us into the consumerist society of the 21st century), Ricks’ intent to make Shakespeare politically correct vitiates the production’s profitability.
In order to appease contemporary sensibilities, Ricks censors the plot’s anti-Semitic volatility. He constructs a convention in which “highly-educated” characters never utter racist epithets towards Shylock while the “less-educated” characters use pronounced anti-Semitic pejoratives without hesitation. Ricks has also rewritten the play’s tragic ending that strips Shylock of his very identity. This interpretive concept is specious since anti-Semitism crosses all socio-educational domains and, alternatively, you can find philo-Semites among all occupational levels.
Ricks, moreover, has transformed Antonio into a woman named Antonia (a rigid Kimberly Jones Clark). He does this, through his own admission, to erase any intimations of homoeroticism in the play and to show that women play important roles in commerce in the 21st century. Sorry, readers, you won’t be seeing any Venetian “men-at-work” after-hours in this show. Yet, to the performance’s disadvantage, these conventions mortgage the show to a handful of subprime vulnerabilities.
What is it about Shylock that makes him such a “shanda for the goyim”? Shylock charges a pound of flesh as interest on the loan Antonia seeks for her over-leveraged, love-struck friend, Bassanio (an unwieldy Greg Joubert) who needs financing to woo the heiress Portia (an adroit and ethereal Liz Blake White). In the original piece, Antonio, the devout Christian, hates Shylock because he is a Jew and usurer. In Ricks’ version, Antonia hates him because of his unscrupulous business practices.
While I don’t doubt censoring Antonia’s anti-Semitism has commendable intentions, it’s without much consequence. The obstruction leaves the conflict between Antonia and Shylock bereft of its incendiary, sadistic epicenter and, ultimately, the ferocious animosity between Antonia and Shylock feels asphyxiated and out of place in 21st century business.
Shylock (Jeff Clevenger) struggles a bit to cement his characterization as a psychopathic Jewish businessman and victimized outsider when we first meet him in his office playing with his MacBook but he gains Judaic credibility in the trial scene in Act IV. Clevenger’s a bit tender in his portrayal as Shylock, and he couldn’t quite garner my sympathy. A quibble I have is there are no outward signs that he is Jewish until he enters the courtroom wearing a kippah. (I don’t understand: does he convert to Hassidism before the trial?)
Standout actors include Adrian Grantz as Gratiano, who has a real thuggish attitude to him; Phil Vollmer as Launcelot, Shylock’s servant, who schemes against his master with exaggerated, yet pristine diction and pulls most of the weight in this comedy. (It’s OK to laugh in this show; it’s meant to be a comedy after all albeit woeful.) VCU sophomore Lauren Davis brings an authentic teenage contrariness yet youthful innocence to her character as Shylock’s daughter, Jessica.
3 out of 5 Stars
“The Merchant of Venice” runs through October 15, 2011 at SPARC. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://henleystreettheatre.org/ Photo credit Henley Street Theatre Company.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
As part of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, Quill Theatre will offer their rendition of the tragic comedy, The Merchant of Venice. Directed by Dr. Jan Powell, the play follows a Venetian merchant, Bassanio, who falls in love with a wealthy heiress from a neighboring city. He has no choice but to borrow money from a [...]July 7, 2016
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