The Merchant of Venice
Hitting the Reset Button, Bare Bard Players
Present Shakespeare’s Intended Comedy
Maryland Shakespeare Festival, All Saints Episcopal Church, Frederick, Md.
Sunday, March 25, 2012, middle row front
Bare Bard Repertory Season
Here’s a revelation that should not be a revelation: The Merchant of Venice is a comedy. When played without a director’s agenda (indeed, without even a director) and without any preconceived Semitic sensitivities on the part of the players (indeed, all they have to work from is Shakespeare’s text), it is a funny play. In the hands of the Maryland Shakespeare Festival’s Bare Bard Repertory, who put on its production under the above conditions, it was a good play and a good time, too.
This does not take away from the tragedy of Shylock. That was there, even as the audience cheered Portia’s victory over him. However, as he does with all his great romantic comedies—As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night—Shakespeare gives us a bit of danger along with laughs, despicable behavior along with charming personalities, and perceived villains—in this case, Shylock—who end up earning our sympathies.
Wait, wait: am I really placing Merchant on par with those other three comedies? After seeing this Bare Bard production, yes, I am.
And Portia is another exquisite Shakespearean heroine in the class of Rosalind, Beatrice, and Viola, especially as played by Elizabeth Jernigan. This was her second Portia in two days, and she rocked in her two scenes as Brutus’ wife in Julius Caesar the evening before. Given a full five-act arc, Jernigan painted this Portia with as many colors and brushstrokes as a Degas dancer. Here was a Portia who would inspire princes to flock to Belmont and hazard a vow of eternal celibacy to win her—beautiful, witty, charming—until they turned their backs, when her contempt seeped through her ever-present smile. She was giddy as a little girl around Bassanio after he chose the right casket, but gathered her composure when the mood shifted upon Bassanio receiving the news of Antonio’s situation. In the ring scene, she waxed wise as she spoke of the sacredness surrounding tokens of love but yet spoke with a wink in her voice, addressing the speech to individuals in the audience and making us all complicit as she punked Bassanio.
In the trial scene, however, Portia was all serious, and Jernigan used the scenes before and after the trial to make a smooth transition between rom-com love interest to Bassanio and heroic foil to Shylock. Her “quality of mercy” speech had such gravitas and logic that Shylock paused a moment in consideration before again demanding his bond. Jernigan’s Portia realized her legal solution at the last second as Shylock was readying his knife near Antonio’s breast and, upon achieving that triumph, she began piling legal rulings on Shylock, not out of racist spite but with a determination to make him understand he should have better heeded her sermon on mercy. “Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the duke,” she said, hammering the word mercy in Shylock’s conscious. But she wasn’t done; she had another antagonist in this whole affair she wanted to reform, so when Shylock begged the Duke to take his life rather than all his property, Portia turned on Antonio. “What mercy can you render him, Antonio?” she asked, again adding emphasis to that key word as if to caution, “Were you listening to me before?” He was. Yes, the audience gasped when Antonio’s version of mercy included the requirement that Shylock convert to Christianity, but no matter what 20th century experience and 21st century understanding we may want to pinion Portia with, her message is the 16th century message Shakespeare gave her: “The quality of mercy is not strained…It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.” She, and Shakespeare, was far kinder to Jews than any of her contemporaries.
Stephen Lorne Williams played Shylock with consistent dignity, such that the Christians’ taunts were clearly racist. We accepted that he’d been abused by Antonio, but it also was obvious that he’d gone pathological in his obsession with revenge; multiples of the forfeited bond in cash at hand is a victory most sensible people would jump at. It’s his overreach, not his Jewishness, that was this Shylock’s tragedy. In that reading, the audience could cheer Portia’s outwitting him, but as he departed with his dignity still intact, we could feel the pangs that the abuses against him had yet to be fully redressed.
That reading sufficed in part because Jared Mercier’s Antonio was no more nor no less than the Antonio Shakespeare wrote. Mercier, too, maintained consistent dignity in his portrayal and, while Antonio admits that he doesn’t like Shylock and has often upbraided him, we don’t see evidence in the text that his abuses were as bad as Shylock reports, just as we don’t see Shylock in the extremes that the Christians portray him. Also, by reverting to a text-centric presentation of the play, this production didn’t cater to the recent trend of making Antonio a frustrated gay man and Bassanio his desire or past lover. They were what they were, a humorless merchant and his reckless protégé. Why is Antonio sad and so heedlessly spoils Bassanio by getting him more cash? Because if he didn’t, we wouldn’t have a play, would we?
Shakespeare’s romantic male leads are not the most charismatic characters in his canon (except, ironically, in the eyes of his brilliant romantic female leads), but Bassanio more than any of the others is a real loser. Yes, he guesses right among the chests, and he has to have enough personality and good looks to catch and keep Portia’s attention. But he starts off the play in deep debt, goes into deeper debt and in doing so gets his best friend in dangerously deep debt, and then when he does something right—initially refusing to give up his ring to the judge—he immediately gives in to peer pressure and betrays his wife, failing his very first test of their marriage.
And JJ Area’s Bassanio was a most lovable loser. His very entrance unintentionally cast him in this light when he came charging through the stage-door curtain so rambunctiously he accidentally pulled down the curtain. As his castmates reinstalled the curtain, Area sheepishly bowed to both the audience’s derisive applause and Salerio’s next line to Antonio, which Christina Frank spoke in a tone perfectly suited to this unanticipated stage business: “I would have stayed till I had made you merry if worthier friends had not prevented me.” This is the kind of real-time Shakespeare fun that overly conceived productions seldom have. Area’s Bassanio kept up his jovial rapport with the audience throughout the play, even consulting with a patron before choosing among the caskets, oblivious to Neel Madan as Balthasar over-emphasizing every “led” rhyme in his song: “Tell me where is fancy BRED/Or in the heart, or in the HEAD?/ How begot, how nourish-ED?” Area also garnered one of the play’s biggest laughs when he introduced his old friend to Portia by giving a new emphasis to Shakespeare’s line: “This is THE MAN, this is Antonio.” How perfect of this Bassanio. With such a Bassanio and Jernigan’s Portia, the Act Five ring scene was not a post-trial waste of time as so often happens when this play goes dark and over-emphasizes the characters’ faults while casting Shylock as the hero; it was a hilarious untwining of a joke thread played to a near-continuous laugh track.
In a mostly strong cast, a couple of other performances stood out. Nathan Johnson was a suitably over-proud Prince of Morocco, but he so beautifully and genuinely praised Portia and carried an air of naiveté about him—and he was so friggin’ funny—some audience members afterward admitted they were rooting for him to choose the right casket (and given Johnson’s gentle demeanor, Portia’s follow-up line about his complexion was truly racist, even in this telling—how much more impact when our laughter turns on a line to self-reflection). Playing Launcelot Gobbo was Matthew Pauli, a graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. He presented a remarkable fiend-versus-conscience routine as only a true clown trained in mime could, changing the wear of his hat, his body posture, and the expression of his voice and face as he switched personas from Gobbo to fiend to conscience and back through. He also established such a strong rapport with Jessica, played with a genuine sweetness by Teresa Spencer, that the only fault I found with this production was that it cut their scene in which Gobbo argues that Jessica is eternally damned. I accept it was a cut for time, one that didn’t impact the rest of the play, but I would have loved to see Pauli and Spencer spar in that scene.
Hard for me to believe: here was a Merchant of Venice I couldn’t get enough of. This play has understandably undergone a new incarnation in our post-Holocaust world, but still I’ve always wanted to see how it would play as a straight comedy. After all, the title of the first published edition in 1600 is The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice. In that title, Shakespeare was not only pointing out that this is a comedy, he was pointing to Shylock’s value to the play’s overall scope (even if this title was not his own, it was a product of his company and reflected the play’s selling points). In the past 50 years, this has become a play produced by directors with axes to grind and actors with prizes to fetch. How fresh, then, to see a production with no director and with actors whose only two goals were to present Shakespeare’s play as written and to entertain their audience. And this audience loved it. A lot.
March 29, 2012