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The Merchant of Venice

Burnishing the Gold, Silver, and Lead

Atlanta Shakespeare Company, New American Shakespeare Tavern, Atlanta, Georgia
Sunday, May 24, 2015, Table in second row, toward the right
Directed by Laura Cole

White bearded Shylock in black robe and skullcap with paisley patterned robe and belt poses with Portia wearing a black dress with gold trim and purple sleeves.
Doug Kaye as Shylock and Amee Vyas as Portia in the Atlanta Shakespeare Company's production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the Shakespeare Tavern. Photo by Jeff Watkins, Atlanta Shakespeare Company.

The standard at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company is to present William Shakespeare’s works in their purest forms. Other than cuts for length, the texts are closely adhered to and the costuming is inevitably historical (for this Merchant of Venice, the luxurious renaissance Venetian garb is designed by Anné Carole Butler). And don’t get Founding Artistic Director Jeff Watkins started ranting against conceptual Shakespeare, productions that shapeshift the Bard's plays to fit a director's own thematic or social context.

Yet, even in meeting these standards, in the company’s production of The Merchant of Venice at its Shakespeare Tavern on Peachtree Street, Director Laura Cole inserts interpretive stage business while her cast uses pointed line readings that determinedly shape characters’ motives and give the play a distinct tone. This Merchant is a romantic comedy with slapstick on the edges and an undertow of racial malevolence; the trial scene at its center is not a thematic or dramatic detour but a mile marker integrated into the play’s journey to its silly fifth act and happy ending. Nevertheless, Shylock, in the exquisite performance of Doug Kaye, remains a moral specter that haunts our otherwise blithe trip.

The first scene establishes a Venice populated by Entourage-like man-boys. Solanio (Vinnie Mascola) and Salerino (Dani Herd) mercilessly rib the obviously depressed Antonio. Gratiano (Doug Graham) and Lorenzo (Garrett Gray) both are drunk when they show up with Bassanio. In this brief moment, Lorenzo—the man who will elope with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica—is established as a kindred spirit of the conceited loud-mouth and aptly named Gratiano. Thus it is that when Portia (Amee Vyas) and Nerissa (Kirstin Calvert), are about to set off for the trial in Venice, Portia turns over command of her estate specifically to Jessica, not Lorenzo (this is done with a bit of notable stage business and purposeful alteration in the verse’s rhythm). This seems to indicate Portia’s wisdom: Gray’s Lorenzo is an untrustworthy, selfish playboy.

But, in fact, Portia is making the same mistake Shylock had made earlier when he handed Jessica the keys to their house. In Amanda Lindsey’s portrayal, Jessica is as giddy about riches and the gallant world of the Christians as Lorenzo and his mates are; this is a girl who would unreservedly use one of her father’s stolen rings—even if she knew of its sentimental importance—to buy a monkey, as is reported of her. Upon being given the keys to Portia’s estate, Jessica and Lorenzo run into the house with let’s-go-play glee, and in the last scene she’s downright giddy upon hearing of her father’s enforced deed of gift to her husband.

Another parallel bit of stage business opens and closes the play. In the first scene, as Salerino, and Solanio, and then Gratiano blab on about their lighthearted theories of what’s causing Antonio’s sadness, Antonio (Sam R. Ross) pulls out a letter and privately scans it, ignoring the others—until Salerino suggests that Antonio is in love. “Fie, fie!” Ross’s Antonio protests too much. Is this letter from Bassanio, broaching the topic of the latter’s planned courtship of Portia? All evidence points to that. At play’s end, Antonio is again perusing a letter, the one Portia has given him reporting his fleets to be safely at port, and he looks up to see, at the back of the stage, Portia canoodling with Bassanio as the couple heads to bed. Bassanio (Ralph del Rosario) gives Antonio an uneasy look before departing, and Antonio, sad still, looks off in the distance.

For all of the interesting insights Cole pursues with various characters and specific moments of the play, she falls back on the now-clichéd notion that Antonio is gay and has either a romantic relationship with or a major crush on Bassanio. With del Rosario portraying a petulant brat doting on his own shoulder-length hair more than he dotes on Portia, this Bassanio even seems to be something of a boy toy for the elderly gay Antonio. A keen moment comes when Ross’ Antonio slips into a tone of irritation as he tells Bassanio how “Thou know’st that all my fortunes are at sea, neither have I money, nor commodity to raise a present sum.” At this, del Rosario’s Bassanio turns and stomps away in a snit. Antonio quickly continues, “Therefore go forth. Try what my credit can in Venice do,” whereupon Bassanio resumes his puppy behavior. Bassanio seems to be playing Antonio as his personal ATM machine, just as Lorenzo does with Jessica, Jessica with her father, and all, eventually, with Portia. Beneath the trappings of this romantic comedy, love comes off as more of a financial commodity than a romantic ideal.

That is keen reading, but falling back on gay stereotypes for Antonio’s sadness is a shallow if not misguided interpretation of the text. Bassanio could simply be the merchant’s young protégé or puppet instead of a romantic interest. Meanwhile, the language Antonio himself uses indicates he is suffering from chronic depression, for whatever reason or for no reason at all (the great conundrum of chronic depression—we who have it can seldom clarify its source, especially when it hits us at the heights of prosperity and celebration). The gay interpretation ends up shackling what would have been a fascinating portrayal of Antonio in the hands of the talented Ross. His arresting performance, from the presentation of enigmatic consternation at the beginning to astute comic timing during Portia’s ring prank in the last scene, reveals Antonio—presumably the titular merchant—to be a forerunner of Hamlet, Macbeth, Leontes, and Prospero. Reports of Antonio within the play are as conflicting as the man himself seems to be conflicted: the Christians laud him for his charity and noble bearing, whereas Shylock portrays a man who spews hateful insults at every chance—and, notably, Antonio doesn’t deny the charge. That’s the real conundrum of Antonio I want to see explore.

Vyas plays Portia as an impetuous young woman. Her bristling at being confined by her father’s will to be husbanded only through suitors choosing the right chest (gold, silver, lead) containing her portrait comes across as more impatience than injury. She approaches her crush on Bassanio as desiring instant gratification, damn the whole chest-choosing ceremony. Her line readings stress the joking nature of her going to Venice in disguise, and at play’s end when she gives out her various letters, she snatches each back from their recipients, opens them herself, and reads them out loud. Vyas also seems impulsive with the verse itself as she glibly rushes through her speeches, including the iconic “quality of mercy” speech in which her argument comes off simply as “be merciful because it’s the nice thing to do.” It's all so sweet.

Maintaining Portia’s playful spirit through the trial scene does pay off in the fifth act, which here is played for big laughs and earns them aplenty. In such a comic scene, a Portia who really believes the quality of mercy is not strained would not be so inclined to punk her new husband so mercilessly. However, the fault of inconsistency may lie with the text, if you consider that Portia is Shakespeare’s work-in-progress toward the great romantic heroines yet to come with Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola.

The trial scene gets its share of laughs, too, especially through the manic antics of Graham’s Gratiano. But the scene’s beating heart remains Shylock’s. Most Shylocks build their characters on the “What is a Jew” speech, but Kaye finds a more intriguing foundation for his portrayal: when he is receiving intelligence from Tubal on the eloped Jessica’s excessive spending, Shylock says, “The curse never fell upon our nation till now, I never felt it till now.” Kaye pauses long in that comma, seeming to collect himself as he separates the generations of persecution Jews have endured from his own personal loss of daughter and wealth. This distinction is the crack through which Shylock falls, focusing so intently on his singular quest for revenge—which he clothes as “justice”—that he fails to see how “justice” will inevitably be turned against him on the mere fact that he is a Jew (“an alien”).

Kaye's performance of Shylock is full of nuanced line readings and gestures, most pronounced in the trial scene. His Shylock is disappointed in the judge's letter, fearing the proceedings will be stacked against him with an inexperienced judge. Then, when Portia asks who is who—by garb it’s obvious who is the plaintiff Jew and who the defendant bankrupt merchant—Kaye’s Shylock is certain the boy is not just untrained but an idiot. Thus, Shylock's gleeful shout of "a Daniel!" when Portia proves to be learned in Venetian law is one of surprised exaltation, and his subsequent enthusiastic endorsement of this youngster as a suitable judge sets the trap for the judgments to come against him. Vyas's performance in this scene goes some ways toward explaining Portia's mysterious motive in playing the judge in the Shylock-Antonio trial: there's more to be had than merely saving Bassanio's friend (I'm being extra-textual here, but thanks to dealing with all her foreign suitors, Portia could be familiar with Venice's laws concerning aliens).

With each decree against Shylock, Gratiano begins crowing like a Red Sox fan watching a come-back beat-down of the hated Yankees. This gets a laugh from the audience, whereupon Shylock glares out across the room to sudden silence. However, Shylock leaves in defeat to applause. Is it because Kaye is exiting after a fine performance or for the seeming end of this dramatic trial scene generally well played? Or is it because the Jew has been defeated and will be converted? In New York, this scene leaves audiences angry, but actors who have played this scene in Bible Belt territory have told me they can feel the audience cheering the Christians on. How so very Shakespeare that a single scene played straight to the text can generate a spectrum of responses, from a sense of tragedy to a sense of victory with both comedy and discomfort in the middle.

Overall, this production skims over the play’s racial and ethnic slurs as lighthearted jokes. Cole also cast the company’s lone actor of color, Gray, as Lorenzo and not as the Prince of Morocco, thereby avoiding associating the character's color from the racially-tainted humor of the role. Instead, Matt Nitchie plays Morocco, and he is wonderfully comic, channeling an evangelical preacher as he testifies why he is choosing gold over silver and lead. Nitchie, in fact, is a quadruple stand-out, also playing the Duke of Venice (and raising that character to serve as the emotional core of the trial scene), Tubal, and Old Gobbo.

Yes, this production keeps in Launcelot’s prank on his blind father, but thanks to a Puckish Launcelot in the performance of Matt Felten and Nitchie’s improvisational moments, this scene turns out to be genuinely funny and not cruel. Upon his son slapping him, Old Gobbo can suddenly see—after all, his "sand-blindness" seems to have been caused by wearing his cap too low over his eye—and pronounces, “Holy cow, there's a play going on!" Felten has his own such moment in his delightful turn as the Prince of Arragon, the second of Portia’s chest-choosing suitors, who arrives to the live soundtrack of a flamenco guitar. Guessing wrong, he starts to leave and the guitarist strikes up again: “Oh, shut up!” Felten’s Arragon shouts, stopping the off-stage guitarist in mid-strum. Another improvisational moment comes after a father and daughter in the audience, who had left presumably to use the restroom, returned to the theater—which, being a working tavern, resembles a dinner theater—through the entrance at the side of the stage and waited there for much of the fifth act. Vyas, remaining in character as Portia, advises them to take their seats because they'll get a better view of the good part about to come.

Along with retaining the Old Gobbo scene, this production keeps intact most of the Lorenzo-Jessica scene that opens act five. What is cut is Launcelot’s interchange with Jessica about her conversion to Christianity raising the price of pork; given what the talented Felten and Lindsey would have brought to that scene, its excision is an unfortunate loss.

But other directorial choices enrich this Merchant. Upon leaving Shylock’s employ, Launcelot gives Jessica a jester doll; later, in the elopement scene, the first thing Lorenzo finds in the casket Jessica gives him is that doll, which he looks at with disdain before quickly moving on to an eye-widening jewel necklace. After Bassanio tells Portia that his debt of 3,000 ducats has endangered Antonio’s life, Vyas's Portia laughs. “What, no more?” she says and pulls off one of her earrings and hands it to Bassanio: “Pay him six thousand and deface the bond.” She next pulls off one of her rings: “Double six thousand and then treble that.” When Solanio and Salerino make fun of Shylock (“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!”) they do so in an exaggerated imitation of Kaye’s portrayal of the Jew. Then they move on to describing the parting of Antonio and Bassanio (“with affection wondrous sensible”), and they maintain their mocking vein with exaggerated imitations of Ross’s morose Antonio and del Rosario’s hair-flipping puppy of a Bassanio.

I had never before seen Solanio and Salerino so mockingly mean to anyone other than Shylock. However, watching The Merchant of Venice staged with the Tavern’s particular production principles makes you realize that they probably started off that way when Shakespeare penned them. It’s also obvious that he wrote Merchant as a romantic comedy intended to have us leave laughing. But then there’s Kaye’s Shylock knocking the laughter out of our mouths with that glare; Shakespeare seems to have intended that, too.

Eric Minton
June 9, 2015

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