The plot revolves around a man named Bassanio and his courtship of a woman named Portia. Bassanio needs 3,000 ducats to be her suitor, and he borrows the money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, with Bassanio’s merchant friend, Antonio, acting as guarantor on the loan. The terms are steep: If Bassanio can’t repay Shylock on the specified date, Shylock will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
The play has been set in pretty much every era and time period imaginable over the past 500 years; Southwest Shakespeare Company sets theirs in the U.S. during the late 1920s, presumably just prior to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that helped trigger the Great Depression. Two rolling panel walls with doors and Art Deco windows, a faux marble floor and counter, braided columns, mannequin torsos draped in 1920 clothes, and a black chalkboard showing New York Stock Exchange rates set the stage for the talented cast of actors, and an oft-disturbing but always powerful story about prejudice, race, and religion.
When Shakespeare penned “The Merchant of Venice” in the late 1590s, English Jews had been expelled from the country for more than 300 years, beginning with their banishment under Edward I in 1290. (They were not allowed to return until 1656, 40 years after Shakespeare’s death.) Swiss historian Philippe Burren described Elizabethan England as “judeophobic.”
Performances and perceptions of “The Merchant of Venice,” particularly of the character Shylock, have varied and morphed according to current cultures over the past 500 years, and it’s no surprise that Southwest Shakespeare Company keeps Shylock a complicated character, simultaneously a sympathetic figure and a villain. Originally classified as a comedy, much of the “humor” in the earliest performances revolved around the ridicule of Shylock. But today, the play is more recognized for its dramatic moments, such as Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech and Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained” plea.
Actor Mike Traylor gives a superb performance as Shylock, with a bent-over posture in a suit slightly too large for him that makes him seem small (which seems metaphorically fitting when we get to the court scenes, where he will be vengeful and unreasonable before being stripped of everything that matters to him and forced to convert to Christianity), and a multicultural accent that sounded simultaneously like a Jewish person from New York, a Hispanic man, and an Arab – which somehow worked quite well, just as a general accent of “The Other.” A few audience members at the performance we attended audibly gasped when another character spat on Shylock (which happened a few times), and during the post-performance talkback, someone said they really wanted to like the character of Antonio, but couldn’t help but hate him – probably a consequence of the otherwise noble Antonio’s despicable treatment of Shylock. Not that Shylock is a saint – when presented with the chance to be merciful and walk away with twice the money he’s owed, he insists upon carving his bond from Antonio’s chest. Indeed, there is hardly a wholly admirable character in all of “The Merchant of Venice,” save for perhaps Portia, played with aplomb by a black-bobbed, flapper-looking Alison Campbell. But the performances are great across the board, from the portrayals of Bassanio’s friends as zoot suited wise guys to David Dickinson’s flamboyant performances as Launcelot Gobbo, the Prince of Morocco, and the Prince of Aragon. There’s also a scene where Dickinson plays a piece from the 1986 movie “The Mission” on violin – a clever connection to one of the themes of “The Merchant of Venice,” the conversions of Jews to Christianity (“The Mission” is about a Jesuit priest attempting to convert natives in South America).
The cast and director Kent Burnham season the production with subliminal symbols, and all the cast members are somewhere on the stage and in the background throughout the performance, sometimes sitting still in chairs on the side of the stage, sometimes reading a newspaper, occasionally leaning in and seeming to have conversations while clutching cocktail glasses in the shadowy areas, but always present. “I wanted it to be like a raw nerve,” Burnham said in the talkback, referring to the immersive aspects (there are a few scenes where actors come down some stairs and through the audience) and the openness of the stage setting.
He could have just as easily been talking about the play itself, particularly given the potent and poignant closing scene, which was not in Shakespeare’s original play but which elevates Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production to “must-see” status, regardless of how many times you’ve read or seen “The Merchant of Venice” already. That’s all we’ll say about that. You really should see it for yourself.
When watching a play that’s been around for half a millennium, audience members may ask themselves if there’s anything new or different a company could bring to the table. Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” is a resounding “yes.”
Southwest Shakespeare Company’s “The Merchant of Venice”
Nesbitt/Elliott Playhouse at Mesa Arts Center
Through October 29
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