A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
The Merchant of Venice
By Elyse Sommer
The Merchant of Venice is a schizophrenic sort of play. It's categorized as a comedy and is indeed filled with much comic business; yet its most famous character, Shylock, is a Jew whose beloved daughter is lost to him when she elopes with a man who belongs to a virulently anti-Semitic society. When grief, anger and vengeance overcome common sense he ends up literally forced to his knees to renounce his faith and his fortune. It is not only the tragedy of one man but of all outsiders -- and by extension, the tragedy of insiders who talk of Christian virtue but fail to practice it.
Comedy does permeate the play. It is at home in Venice. It is at home on the road to and in tranquil Belmont. Where the witty Portia seeks to find a worthy suitor within the confines prescribed by her father's will.
The contradiction of genre stems from the fact that the play's comedy is as segregated from the central tragedy as Jews and other non-mainstream sects are from the Venice and Belmont social order. Tina Packer has bravely undertaken to have it all: An exhilarating sense of being transported back into an Elizabethan metropolis, (Venice), and an idyllic suburb (Belmont) to which the Mount's outdoor stage lends itself particularly well thought-provoking coming-to-grips approach to a story about "good guys" who deprive a defiantly unlikeable but not evil victim of his identity -- and do so with glee.
Ms. Packer has also added some bold new strokes to both comedy and tragedy.
The suitors who come to Belmont to claim Portia, (magnificently played by Tod Randolph), give the long evening some of its most entertaining and hilarious moments. John Douglas Thompson as the Prince of Morocco, (he also plays the Duke of Venice who later presides over the famous trial scene), is so amusingly endearing that you almost wish Packer had taken liberties with the text and let him pick the right casket. While the Prince leaves without Portia, as prescribed by the Bard, Dan McLeary has been free rein to wrest maximum hilarity from his role as the second suitor, the Prince of Arragon. Besides sporting a campy red wig, he speaks with a totally unShakespearian Spanish accent -- and gets away with it. McLeary also plays Old Gobbo to Jason Asprey's somewhat too over-the-top portrayal of his son and Shylock's defecting servant Launcelot Gobbo.
The main and most memorable innovation comes vis-à-vis the role of Shylock, (played with curmugeonly flair by Jonathan Epstein). With a few deft directorial strokes Packer has made his tragedy the beginning, end and very core of the play. The first picture she paints for us is of the outsider in the tightly knit, deeply bigoted Venetian society. To give this sense of apartness more universality that opening picture is of a trio of Muslims, as outside Venetian society's mainstream as Shylock and his Jewish brethren. Those Muslims are replaced by a searing closing visual and vocal rendering of Shylock and his daughter Jessica (Christine Calfas). It is an image that casts an unforgettably somber and thought-provoking layer over the happy conclusions to the various romantic entanglements. Since this stunning finale, like that in the recent Broadway revival of Cabaret, depends on surprise for its full impact. I'll put a descriptive note after the box with production details for readers who may not get to Lenox to see this production. I can, however, state without spoiling anything that for this scene to be even more compelling, the production needed to more firmly establish Shylock's love for his daughter.
As it is Shylock's famous "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, shall we not die?" ( III, i, 58-66) suffers from two flaws. As delivered by Epstein this speech falls somewhat short of its full power and his talk of wishing Jessica dead still follows too closely on its heels. This last tends to revoke sympathy gained just seventeen or so lines earlier. If the "new twist" could have included a bit of the orthodox Jewish tradition of mourning children who marry out of the faith as if they were indeed dead, (a quick image of Shylock on the wooden box used during Shivah?), the angry insistence on his "pound of flesh" would more clearly stem from grief-induced anger at Antonio. Malcolm Ingram's Antonio, by the way, is rather cool without any of the tensions to imply his erotic feelings for Bassanio. By the same token Peter Wittrock's Bassanio is good but not on a par with Tod Randolph's super- dynamic Portia.
The new elements of this Merchant aside, the production spills gracefully beyond the multi-level stage and into the surrounding woods, as well as up and down the aisles. Except for the pivotal confrontations, Belmont remains a lyrical far-off place in the forest area surrounding the theater. The movement of the white-robed figures are reminiscent of a beautiful painting of Sylphs dancing in thewood. While the cast is too large to comment about all, their line delivery was uniformly clear.
To end on a consumer guidance note: Like previous Main Stage Shakespeare productions, this one is an outstanding experience. If you go, take bug spray, a warm jacket and arrive early enough to spread a blanket for a pre-performance picnic on the beautiful grounds of The Mount. That blanket will also come in handy when the sky darkens and the air cools.