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The Merchant of Venice

In “The Heiress of Belmont,
All That Clutters Is Not Gold

Shakespeare Theatre Company, Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, February 8, 2011, D–120&121 (center left stalls)
Directed by Ethan McSweeny

The watershed moment of this production came in the middle of Act Five when Lorenzo told Portia, “Your husband is at hand. I hear his trumpet.” What he heard, in fact, was a car horn. Sure, it was fitting for the 1920s setting, but it was just another of too many annoying sound effects. Furthermore, the metaphorical stretch was so thin even Matthew Carlson playing Lorenzo seemed ashamed to speak the line. I literally threw up my hands at this the proverbial last straw of the night.

That this Merchant was set in Speakeasy-Era New York City (but still calling it “Venice”) was not a problem for me. Director Ethan McSweeny saw apt parallels between 16th century Venice, then the world’s commercial center and notorious melting pot, and early 20th century Gotham. The production portrayed the abutting immigrant communities of Little Italy and Lower East Side set against the wealthy suburb of Belmont and a city-machine politician (i.e., the doge) serving as a powerful but benevolent boss adhering to an established code of doing business. Money was the connection among these communities, but the language of money yet differed, a conceit exemplified when Bassanio and his friends fretted over the 3,000 ducats Antonio owed Shylock, prompting a belittling laugh from Portia. “What, no more?” she asked as Nerissa automatically retrieved the checkbook. Portia casually wrote a sum for treble the double of that amount and handed the check to an astonished Bassanio.

A bothersome application of the setting, however, was Salerio and Solanio using wise-guy gangster accents. That would be fun if they spoke prose, but in iambic pentameter, it was jarring. HBO’s The Sopranos was poetic in its way, but imagine Big Pussy or Silvio saying, “My wind cooling my broth/ Would blow me to an ague, when I thought/ What harm a wind too great might do at sea.” (Meanwhile, effete Aragon spoke with such a lisp, it rendered his funniest lines unintelligible.)

The real problem with this production wasn’t the concept, per se; it was all the clutter. Twenty-four actors, total, criss-crossed the stage as street urchins, policemen, servants, partiers, and pedestrians in addition to the named parts. It was so much stage business it detracted from the speakers. Individual characters even carried unnecessary burdens, like Jessica, sweetly played by Amelia Pedlow, arriving at Belmont entering her third trimester of pregnancy (this production went all Hubble on Shakespeare’s tendency to telescope time).

Soliloquies and intimate conversations became public spectacles. Launcelot Gobbo (Daniel Pearce) did his fiend speech as street theater, complete with passing his hat for change; whatever the intent of this reading, it only served to remind me how great was the ganja-infused version of this speech in New Theater’s production earlier this year in the real New York. Portia gave her “You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand” speech as a champagne toast before a party of well-dressed guests, complete with applause. Whatever the intent of this staging, for me it served as evidence, rather, of how beautifully intimate this speech can be, something to be spoken into the eyes of the just-won man she loves to infatuation. Then there was the final scene. At Belmont, everybody exited except Jessica, and onto the stage walked Shylock. They look at each other as the lights faded. McSweeny was obviously making a powerful point there. Exactly what that point was supposed to be, though, was anything but obvious; it was just so much allegorical clutter.

The set itself was cluttered, too: storefronts, café tables, and a 1920 car (with a radio playing music! Talk about anachronistic Shakespeare). In the middle of the stage was a huuuuuge staircase around and on which the actors had to perform every scene, interior, exterior, slum, Belmont. It obstructed our view of some of the action (albeit, probably superfluous action), and forced our attention to negotiate multilevel dialogues all night.

Finally, there was the clutter of intrusive Jazz Era musical interludes at every scene change and all those sound effects, including a car motor, low-flying biplane, an arriving yacht’s horn, clubbed golf balls (though Portia clearly was not hitting any of the balls she was swinging at), and, finally, that “trumpet” of a horn honk.

But then, an amazing thing happened: That trumpet signaled a turning point as the rest of Act Five and its double-ring arguments played funny and fun. With no extraneous actors busying about the stage, no marbled wise-guy diction, and no more excuses for sound effects, the scene focused on the text and only the text, allowing the unfiltered purity of Shakespeare’s comedy to come through,“unfiltered” in that this production’s Act Five Belmont was not beleaguered by Shylock’s Act Four tragedy (other than that mysterious postscript entrance of Shylock).

Rather than making the play about Shylock or the titular merchant, McSweeny made Portia the emotional center. It could have been called “The Heiress of Belmont.” Julia Coffey started off like a Paris Hilton, spoiled, shallow, childish, literally waited upon hand and foot as she came in from her horseback ride. It was an irritating introduction to Portia coming hard upon the first scene’s busyness and strained line readings, and with it, I resigned myself to enduring a bad night of theater. But this Portia blossomed in love with her courtship of Bassanio. What does she see in him? Drew Cortese’s charming but cocksure downtown guy used Antonio’s borrowed money to finance a winning first impression by purchasing a stylish wardrobe and gifts. She learned true disappointment with Bassanio’s departure for his “greatest friend” (i.e., greater than she). She matured through both the experience of Antonio’s trial and her own quick-on-her-feet performance in it. By the time she returned to Belmont, she had true self-confidence along with a greater sense of compassion and worldly understanding. She thus assuredly stage-managed the final scene with an eye toward achieving a rock-solid matrimonial state. After all was said and done, we left Harmon Hall feeling that we’d enjoyed a good night of theater thanks to that delightful Portia.

As for the other two main characters, Derek Smith’s Antonio had just the right pathos throughout the play. He played his distaste for Shylock matter-of-factly rather than something intensely religious or greedy, and he proved as comic a foil as anybody in that last scene. His sadness did not overwhelm the action, nor did Smith look for any extra-textual ideas for shaping his Antonio, other than his surprised and aroused reaction to Bassanio’s casual, quick, Italian-man kiss on the lips. Mark Nelson made his Shylock a powerful and sometimes dangerous force. He did not smooth his edges in the least but generated our compassion through the history of discrimination he had obviously swallowed and that still curdled just below his surface. Such was his portrayal that when in the trial scene he just couldn’t will himself to plunge the knife into Antonio, it didn’t ring true: the Shylock whom Nelson hitherto had been playing would not have hesitated with his knife (though it did allow dramatic tension before Portia suddenly lighted upon the bond’s loophole).

A good portion of our compassion for “the Jew” was actually generated by the brilliant performance of Benjamin Pelteson as Tubal. He not only was a young man cast in a role more traditionally rendered as a man older than Shylock, he also appeared in many other scenes than the sole scene written for him. Some of that was clutter, of course, such as his silent courting of Jessica during scene changes; he also operated a fruit cart in the bond negotiation scene, and he seconded Shylock at the trial. But he came to the fore when he gave Shylock his report on tracking Jessica. Pelteson’s Tubal silently but intently watched his old mentor and then carefully interchanged his news of Jessica’s extravagance with the news of Antonio’s demise. The Shylock/Tubal relationship served as a counterpoint to the Antonio/Bassanio relationship (without the sexual overtones), and whereas Bassanio made his way out of Little Italy on cocky charm, young Tubal navigated the dangerous slums with intelligent dignity. Knowing that it was this young Tubal who provided Shylock the 3,000 ducats for the bond (that’s one heck of a profitable vegetable cart!), we could already see in him someone who would some day become a major Wall Street financier and eventual owner of Belmont itself.

Eric Minton
February 10, 2011

Special notes

When in Act Five Portia revealed that it was she and Nerissa who had presided at the trial, an old man seated in front of us said out loud to his wife, “I knew it!” I love it when people can still discover thrills in Shakespeare’s plays 400 years after they were written, even the well-worn compositions.

In an after-play talkback with some of the actors, a gentleman in the audience asked why they cut the baptism scene. The actors pointed out that the play had no baptism scene and that the Broadway production starring Al Pacino had created that scene.

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