The Merchant of Venice

Merchant-Final-WebSometimes romantic, occasionally funny, and always unsettling, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice makes audiences squirm. The play mirrors not only the historic anti-Semitism of the late 1500s but an ongoing reality.

PICT deserves kudos for staging such a thoughtful and timely production of Merchant, a less frequently programmed Shakespeare play as this work has been put on trial itself due to anti-Semitic characters and the perceived stereotyping of Jewish characters. Consider this play in the context of its historical origins, but remember that it is Shakespeare’s timeless and keen observation of human nature that makes his works resonate through time.

Thus, Artistic Director Alan Stanford has chosen to stage this complex “comedy” (as it’s categorized in the First Folio but also regarded as one the “problem plays”) in the 1930s. The setting foreshadows the rise of the Third Reich in Germany and Fascism in Italy. Stanford’s “Venice” could be anywhere, a choice providing even more relevance to this sometimes misunderstood text in November 2016.

The titular merchant Antonio is in debt after losing ships and cargo to storms at sea. His resultant contract with moneylender Shylock is rather gruesomely drawn up: the Jewish debtor requires that Antonio give “a pound of flesh” if he reneges on the loan. Even Antonio chuckles at such a ridiculous condition. But when he can’t pay up, Shylock takes the merchant to court. Add in three mysterious boxes at the lovely bachelorette Portia’s estate Belmont, numerous colorful suitors who include Antonio’s friend Bassanio, Shylock’s daughter Jessica running away with her beloved Lorenzo, and a renown courtroom scene. Smart cross-dressing enables Portia and lady-in-waiting Nerissa to pose as legal experts in court to help Bassanio’s friend, shades of the forest in As You Like It.

Gershwin pre-show tunes set up the period and casual elegance. Stanford’s cast is costumed accurately and attractively from head to toe by Michael Montgomery. They are like 1930s movie stars on Johnmichael Bohach’s clean and practical Bauhaus-inspired set and the style suits the characters’ ultimately careless natures in this version.

Bohach excels in creating appealing details and practical choices for diverse settings at PICT and other area theaters. The elevated stage in the center of the Union Project’s Great Hall has an attractive floor suggesting stone diagonally set with dark wood accents that are  replicated as stage and furniture trim. Low, sophisticated furniture pieces are outfitted with flat ivory cushions and bolsters. Seating on either side of the rectangular stage, the audience readily can focus on the actors and the text. Keith A. Truax’s unintrusive lighting also perhaps intentionally sheds more light on the audience in this production.

James FitzGerald as Shylock
James FitzGerald as Shylock

The space represents the dressing room at a men’s club, posh residences, a courtroom, and more. The pace might benefit from some tightening between scenes, including a reduction in  furniture moving that only sometimes clearly defines scene settings.

As Shylock, James FitzGerald brings the nuance and strength audiences have come to expect of this versatile actor. His Shylock is a savvy businessman, professional and thorough. He is certainly guarded, undoubtedly having managed to build a career in the early 20th century despite implied and overt discrimination. His heartbreak at his only child Jessica’s elopement is palpable and the loss of his late wife Leah’s ring seems genuinely more important than the money Jessica takes with her. Fitzgerald conveys the conflicts within Shylock about family, financial security, and reputation. It’s believable to attribute his determined revenge on merchant Antonio as wrought from the pain of his personal losses.

Martin Giles’s Antonio is debonair and detached. He’s that cool, sometimes troubled friend who always gets by. A top actor to catch in town, Giles is a bit James Mason, mustached with something else under that dashing surface. His Antonio is an enigmatic presence and seems more interested in the mix of his cocktail than the legalities that could ruin him.

Gayle Pazerski is a smart and cool Portia, a woman of means trapped in her late father’s terms for her inheritance. Pazerski draws Portia as a 20th century woman who can play the game and win, subtly setting up Bassanio’s courtship. Well-spoken and a lovely blonde in this production, Pazerski is alluring but not as charming as one could choose to play this cross-dressing heroine. Her “quality of mercy” was more matter-of-fact than a thoughtfully passionate argument, but was effective as delivered directly to Shylock center stage.

Friend and waiting lady Nerissa is portrayed by Karen Baum, a PICT regular whose spunky comic flair and priceless expressions always reflect fierce motivation. Baum delightfully supports Pazerski’s every move as her devotion brings more depth to Nerissa. Her male legal clerk is spot on via her deepened voice and boyish attitude.

Fredi Bernstein nurtures the conflicting emotions of Shylock’s daughter Jessica. Warm in her scenes with the clown Gobo and uncertain in a new environment at Portia’s Belmont, her Jessica  tries hard to fit in. Bernstein draws on much the little Shakespeare provides, sadly pointing up the irony in “on such a night as this” with Lorenzo.

Bassanio as played by Luke Halfery is a young gent learning the ropes. Certainly smart, Halfery’s Bassanio seems less experienced than his desired Portia. He drops Bassanio’s privileged air when he wins her with infectious delight when he gets the girl. As Lorenzo, Michael Steven Brewer solidly builds a case for winning Jessica. His almost businesslike demeanor suggests Lorenzo is may indeed be an opportunistic lover.

Jonathan Visser is the brash, sometimes inebriated Gratiano, contrasting with the other young men in perhaps class and education. Visser shines in his energy and attention to the essence of Gratiano as an eager-to-please, attentive, but unpolished guy. Impetuous and outspoken, Gratiano benefits from Visser’s height and physical attitude, implying he could act even more inappropriately if given the chance.

Connor McCanlus creates a warm and light Launcelot Gobo, the clownish servant in Shylock’s household. The Elizabethan clown may be challenging when time traveling and McCanlus handles it well. With a Chaplinesque approach that suits this period, McCanlus aptly plies Gobo’s  words for sweet effect in scenes with his blind father and Jessica.

Ken Bolden delivers a triple play, showing off his range and lovely voice as Portia’s Spanish suitor Arragon, Old Gobo, and the Duke of Venice as courtroom judge. Bolden’s comic edge is delightful with his handlebar mustache and straw hat at Belmont, tottering as an elder, and sharp and suave in pinstriped suit at court. In court, Bolden and FitzGerald’s intense eye-to-eye discourse is memorable for the textual agility they bring.

James FitzGerald, Martin Giles, Luke Halferty
James FitzGerald, Martin Giles, Luke Halferty

Parag Gohel courts Portia as the dashing Morocco, determined to win, then ambivalent at his loss. As Shylock’s adviser Tubal, Gohel cuts a contrasting style with Orthodox garb and forelocks. Carolyn Jerz as maid Stephania, Portia’s maid, and Simon Colker and Justin Bees are Salanio and Salerio provide support all around.

The themes of ethics, loyalty, and judicial wisdom resound in another memorable production that sets PICT apart as the city’s keeper of the classics. Merchant again raises more questions than answers. Stanford resists telling the audience what to think. In his director’s note, Stanford asks some essential questions, including: “Do we by our own behavior, teach others to treat us as badly as we treat them?”

Ample manipulation includes not only Shylock’s pound of flesh requirement but the  ring trick Portia and Nerissa play on their spouses. Bad behavior includes Gratiano’s inappropriate outbursts in court (in the script) and grabbing Shylock’s yarmulke from his head as the observant Jew leaves the courtroom (director’s addition). That Gratiano wears a sort of brown shirt isn’t lost on us given what happens next in Europe.

PICT’s production supposes is that these self-indulgent folks will next be asked to follow the wave of Fascism or suffer the consequences. Love feels bittersweet and Antonio’s rescue seems a legal card trick motivated less by friendship than power. Most get out of this story safely with some resources intact–even Jessica. The production suggests that only Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity might save him.

Jessica is the last on stage. The reality set in that that the court says she will still inherit Shylock’s remaining assets. The clown escorts her off. As usual, Shylock is the absent one. We can only imagine the moneylender’s fate.

PICT stages The Merchant of Venice, the second production of its 19th season and the second at its new home The Union Project, 801 North Negley Ave (15206), through Sat., Nov. 19. Consult the calendar for dates and prices.

Thank you to PICT for opening night tickets to cover the production.

Photos: Keith A Traux