Entertainment » Theatre

The Merchant Of Venice

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Nov 14, 2008
The cast of The Merchant of Venice
The cast of The Merchant of Venice  (Source:Actors’ Shakespeare Project)

The Actors' Shakespeare Project launches its fifth season with a crackling production of The Merchant of Venice, playing through December 7 at Midway Studios, located at 15 Channel Center Street (until recently, Midway Street) in South Boston's arts-rich Fort Point Channel area.

As the program notes point out, any contemporary production of The Merchant of Venice is going to be faced with a sticky problem insofar as its villain is a Jewish businessman named Shylock. The play incorporates what might be seen by modern eyes as anti-Semitism, but on a deeper level the play is about nature and nurture.

It's also about money, and the task of making money--a business often antithetical to that of taking care of others in one's own community.

These two themes are not at all separate, and director Melia Bensussen explores them both back to their common root with clarity and humor.

In a nutshell, the plot finds a successful importer, Antonio (Robert Walsh), putting his own life on the line to secure a loan for his friend, Bassanio (Robert Serrell). The loan is made by Shylock (Jeremiah Kissel), but the terms are drastic: if Antonio does not repay the loan within 90 days, he forfeits the collateral he has put up against the loan: in this case, and at Shylock's insistence, a pound of Antonio's own flesh, to be cut from near his heart.

This is a comedy, but things a dramatic turn when Antonio is not able to repay the loan on time and Shylock demands that the letter of the law be followed and his bond--along with Antonio--be executed.

Shylock's antagonism toward Antonio arises partly from Shylock's displeasure over Antonio's business practices, which have cost Shylock money in the past. But that's just business: what stings Shylock more deeply is that Antonio, being a citizen of Venice (something that the Jewish Shylock, considered to be an "alien," can never be), conducts himself with casual contempt for Shylock, spitting upon him and calling him a "dog."

That insult is referenced again and again, forming the nexus of the play's debate on race: is Shylock ruthlessly intent on carving out his pound of flesh because of his nature (as a Jew, that is), or because for once the long-suffering "alien" minority has a chance, under law, to strike back at his dismissive oppressors?

Antonio argues that one might as well ask the trees to stop swaying in the wind as ask a Jew to show mercy. His point of view is inalterably steeped in anti-Semitic prejudice.

But that doesn't make the play anti-Semitic. Quite the contrary: seldom has a more articulate argument been made against racism and prejudice as when Shylock makes his famous speech about the common humanity of Jews and Christians: "When you prick us, do we not bleed?" Of course, his anger arises from the fact that he and his people are "pricked" all the time by Christians who feel no compunction about it, because they simply do not see Jews as being quite human.

Hence the insult of "dog," to which Shylock returns, most tellingly, when he rebuffs Antonio's plea for mercy, saying, "Thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause;/But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs..."

"Before thou hadst a cause" refers to prejudice, the pre-judgment Antonio has passed on Shylock's character. The next line, however, contains the essence of the play's conflicting points of view: to Antonio, "since I am a dog" is simply an acknowledgment of a base and brutish nature. But what Shylock is saying is that he's been treated like a dog, so those who dismissed him as animal rather than human should be prepared to be treated accordingly.

It's no wonder Shylock is reluctant to give up his one opportunity to seize, lawfully, a chance to retaliate on the same terms as he has been insulted.

The play may strike the mainstream of its audience as timely because of its examination of the power of money to corrupt law. Requiring a bond of a man's life against a loan is plainly unjust, but in this case it is legal; it's also a fitting metaphor for the sorts of legal shenangians that have led to massive financial losses recently, with middle and lower-class Americans being hardest hit.

Indeed, the play warns us explicitly about the false allure of money. Bassanio needs the loan in order to court Portia (Sarah Newhouse), a young woman compelled by a bizarre stipulation in her late father's will to subject her suitors to a test: they must choose from between three casks, one of which contains Portia's portrait.

One cask is made of gold; another of silver; the third of lead. Open the right cask, and you win the prize: in this case, Portia. Anyone who has seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade can guess which cask contains the picture of the lady.

More than being a commentary on another injustice--the treatment of women as property and, worse, prizes in a game--this plot point is Shakespeare's means of commenting on the beguiling, but often false, nature of pleasant appearances--as is Portia's reaction to her suitors; at one point she says of one potential mate, "if he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me." In other words, ugly dudes need not apply: he can take her confession, but not offer her any occasion for sin.

"The world is ill deceived with ornament," says Bassanio when it's his turn to choose a cask.

With that line, Shakespeare tells us that people with money--despite their conviction of their own innate superiority--are no more likely to contain true treasure than are the poorer classes. Indeed, the notion of economic "class" itself is one more form of prejudice.

Now, it's true that Shylock is maneuvered by the very same laws under which he seeks his revenge into having to choose between losing his wealth (and, not incidentally, his life) or giving up his faith and converting. But does represent a triumph for society, or is it a critique of a society that cannot accept and incorporate difference?

The play itself answers the question when the gadfly-like servant Launcelot (played here with clownish zest by Doug Lockwood), commenting on the conversion of Shylock's daughter and her elopement with a Christian suitor, says, "This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs: if we grow all to be pork-eaters, we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money."

In other words, a strong society and a healthy economy both depend on a diversification of the social portfolio: that is, we need all sorts of people to make society work.

But there's another timely meaning to all of this. When we see a man like Shylock, subjected to a limitation of rights, legally defined as an "other" within the society in which he lives and functions, and see that he loses even his own family to the pressures of that intolerant society, we cannot, perhaps, help but to think about recent political developments here and now: repeal of existing family rights in California, for example, and the backlash, sometimes ugly, that a few from the GLBT community--the readership of this publication--have engaged in out of anger, and out of a sense of being victimized by systematic injustice.

Do we bleed, too, when so pricked? Do our own countrymen care about it if we do? Are we seen as dogs--as not quite human--in that some laws should apply to others, and some to us? And if we are seen as dogs, should we find our fangs and bite back?

"The quality of mercy is not strained," the play reminds us, telling us that it is equally the task of the oppressed as the oppressor to treat others with respect and compassion--even when we are shown it ourselves.

But there's another quality the play hints at--patience. The mistake Shylock makes is not to take a stand, using the same absurd system of laws under which he suffers a second-class citizenship, but rather to give up too soon on other people. It may spare him heartbreak to do so, but it leaves him with nothing but his money, which he's reduced to counting obsessively, joylessly. Surely there's more to life than counting coins--or keeping score.

Kissel's Shylock is a wonderful creation, embodying hurt and rage and a dismal glee in his newfound ability to seek revenge. Far from the bent, shifty-eyed cliche of Shylock, Kissel is light on his feet, practically prancing with the force of his anger; he's a dynamic and hard-driving businessman frustrated beyond endurance by a system that refuses to allow him to reach his personal and professional ambitions. So great is his excitement that Kissel's Shylock cannot help miming his aggravations, throwing his arms wide like Jesus on the cross when detailing some special right enjoyed by Christians, or making devil-horns of his fingers, which he waggles mockingly at those who he sees as trying to deprive him of his righteous revenge.

The other actors also bring vitality and humor to their characters: just as animated as Shylock is Michael Forden Walker's Gratiano, while Serrell plays Bassiano with great charm and sympathy.

A remarkable evolution seems to take place for Portia and her maid, Nerissa (Marianna Bassham): when first we meet them, they engage in girl talk, with giggles and sighs. When they disguise themselves as men in order to save the day, the two incisively make light of male swagger; but after their adventure in disguise, they comport themselves less like girls and more like women, confident in themselves and not above twitting their men.

As Antonio, Walsh brings a stolid dignity to his role; he's not a modern man, by any means, but he does possess a decency, even if it is a decency circumscribed by a reflexive prejudice. Walsh has as hard a challenge before him to make Antonio sympathetic (not only does he admit to having spat on and insulted Shylock; he avers that he might well do more of the same again) as Kissel does to win us over to Shylock, but he accomplishes the task in style.

One of the more interesting things about the Actors' Shakespeare Project is the itinerant nature of the troupe, always finding new venues in which to mount their productions. The space they've found for The Merchant of Venice is a complex one, charming with exposed beams and brick, and yet replete with levels and layers; a catwalk, an array of support struts that create a back passage through which other elements of movement and blocking might be glimpsed. It's a stimulating environment for a dynamic production.

If anyone is tempted to dismiss this play as retrograde, let me offer another thought: take a closer look and ask whether The Merchant of Venice, written 400 years ago, might not still be waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to it.

The Merchant of Venice plays through December 3 at Midway Studios, 15 Channel Street (recently re-named: formerly Midway Street) in South Boston.

Tickets cost $25-47 and can be obtained online at www.actorsshakespeareproject.org or via phone at 866-811-4111.

Performance schedule: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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