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The Merchant of Venice

Seeking Original Intent
Original Pronunciation

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, St. Mary's Community Center, Baltimore, Maryland
Friday, April 3, 2015, Front pew left
Directed by Tom Delise

"Original Pronunciation" (OP) is not Old English. The actors of Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's OP production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice point this out in a preshow speech. They then demonstrate Old English (Beowulf) and Middle English (Chaucer) before speaking an example of the Early Modern English that Shakespeare used when he wrote his plays. This demonstration, by Brendan Edward Kennedy (who plays Lorenzo), Katharine Vary (Launcelet Gobbo, Balthazar) and Tegan Williams (Arragon, Tubal, and various other roles), is alone worth the price of admission.

Shylock in blue renaissance robe with brown striped sleeves and red cap holds back the knife with hir right hand and has his left palm on Antonio's bare breast; Antonio sitting, wincing at what's coming, holding the hands of Salarino, while the Duke of Venice in gold robes holds Antonio's shoulder
Shylock (Ian Blackwell Rogers) prepares to remove a pound of flesh from the breast of Antonio (Zach Brewster-Geisz) as the Duke of Venice (Lonnie Simmons) and Salanio (Hannah Fogler) hold on in the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's The Merchant of Venice. Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Early Modern English is significantly different from the BBC English many people associate with speaking Shakespeare's verse. It is significantly different from Middle American and Australian dialects, too, among the many other perfectly suitable accents in which Shakespeare's plays can be played. Yet, OP sounds vaguely familiar to me. Though I grew up in an Air Force household, I came from North Carolina mountain stock, and listening to Bassanio and Portia in BSF's production reminds me of some of the accents I would hear visiting my grandparents and other relatives in Wilkes County. Scholars have long identified Appalachian English as the closest modern equivalent to "Elizabethan English," though its linguistic heritage is still debated (whether it's English colonialists who moved to the mountains and became geographically isolated or the influence of later Scots-Irish settlers).

That should be assurance that this particular rendering of The Merchant of Venice is accessible to almost anyone who speaks whatever dialect of English they are used to. Meanwhile, this production will further Shakespeare geeks' appreciation of The Bard's poetic ear in the composition of his verse.

Still, Merchant's success in any dialect comes down to the interpretation of the characters and the staging of their actions. Directed by Tom Delise, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's founding artistic director, this production carries off the original pronunciation well, but by concentrating on getting the play's linguistics correct, some of the actors may have lost track of their characters' emotional bearings, and the presentation relies almost wholly on the spoken word rather than staging dynamics. When character and OP do meld, as happens in the play's centerpiece trial scene, it becomes an ascendant Shakespearean moment.

The seeds for this production were sown when Delise attended a seminar by Ben Crystal, an English actor who has become a leading practitioner in OP Shakespeare, including playing Hamlet in OP in a 2011 University of Nevada Repertory Company production. Crystal's father, English language scholar David Crystal, worked with the Shakespeare's Globe in London to stage full-length OP productions of Romeo and Juliet in 2004 and Troilus and Cressida in 2005. Prior to BSF's Merchant, a total of 13 OP productions have been mounted in the United States and the United Kingdom: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Cymbeline, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Pericles, Macbeth twice, and Twelfth Night thrice. BSF's is the first OP Merchant.

Delise champions original practice productions at BSF: bare stages, universal lighting, audience interaction, cross-gender casting, and actors performing contemporary music before the play and during intermission (but sumptuous costuming, in this production the renaissance Venetian clothes designed by April Forrer). At the seminar, Delise approached Ben Crystal about assisting him in mounting an OP production, and Crystal jumped at the chance to work on Merchant, already scheduled as the company's 2015 season opener. A theater patron underwrote the cost of the Crystals' involvement, and Delise's company of actors set about learning OP readings of the play from the two experts.

From the first scene, you will notice how much more fluid the verses flow, and certainly how much better they rhyme ("love" pronounced as a rhyme to "prove"). There's a gutteral quality to the language, which brings Shakespeare's bawdy puns to the surface. Particular pronunciations jump out, such as "fiend" intoned as "faind," which sounds intriguingly close to "friend," and the clown servant Gobbo's name as "Gahbey." Portia is "Por-ce-a." That brings to mind porcelain rather than a high-performance automobile.

And that comes through in the strong performance by Valerie Dowdle in the role. Her Portia is a fragile, girlish woman in the first half of the play. She pouts as she decries her deceased father's stipulation that her future husband must correctly choose her picture hidden in a gold, silver, or lead casket. She glibly insults her suitors behind their backs—though Kathryn Zoerb as Nerissa, Portia's gentlewoman in waiting, strolls through the audience selecting men to represent the horse-loving Neapolitan prince, the frowning County Palatine (me, typecast yet again), the madcap Monsieur Le Bon, the English-centric Falconbridge, and the drunk Duke of Saxony's nephew—and she giggles in gossiping over Bassanio. She is certain her image is in the golden casket, and when the Prince of Morocco opens it to discover he has made the wrong choice, Dowdle's Portia is as much shocked as she is relieved. She then physically wills Arragon toward the gold casket, and when he chooses silver she again wilts in despair before perking up with surprise mingled with the realization that her father thought her dull lead.

Two interactions in particular say much about this young Portia. First, as with the xenophobia she expresses toward her other suitors, Portia takes a racist attitude toward the Prince of Morocco. Lonnie Simmons plays down Morocco's comic aspects and plays up his character's noble nature. The courtly manner in which he accepts his loss earns Portia's sympathy before she comes to what she thinks is her better senses and makes a crack about his dark complexion instead. Then, after Bassanio (Chris Cotterman) wins Portia by choosing the lead casket, the couple learns that their seconds, Gratiano (Barbara Madison Hauck) and Nerissa, have fallen in love and plan to marry. Dowdle plays Portia as none-too-keen about this development, and when Portia moves toward her gentlewoman-in-waiting, Nerissa avoids her. This Portia seems to want a best girlfriend whom she can legally boss around, and losing her was not in her plans. Once Bassanio and Gratiano depart to answer Antonio's plea, Dowdle's Portia re-asserts her command in enlisting Nerissa to join with her in her ploy to dress as law clerks and follow their fiances to Venice.

If not Morocco's response, then finding out her father put her in the lead casket—in which "outward shows be least themselves" as Bassanio says—may be the first important lesson of her life, and though she follows Bassanio to Venice in disguise as a lark, the experience matures her into intellectual sobriety. In the Shylock trial scene, we see Dowdle's Portia carefully weigh consequences and treat everybody, including Shylock, with formal respect. She's a changed woman when she returns to Belmont, no longer giddy and gossiping but introspective and worldly.

Her crux moment is the play's famous speech on the quality of mercy. With her grasp of her character's arc and using OP, which, she said in a post-show talk-back, forces elocution from deep in the diaphragm, Dowdle speaks these lines from her awakening soul. The combination of playing it as such while speaking it in its original form turns this iconic passage into a hymn we're hearing for the first time, not just as an inspiring manifesto but as beautiful poetry, too. Fittingly, it gives Shylock pause. When Portia concludes the speech, he takes time for serious consideration and seems on the verge of giving sway before finally refocusing on his oath of revenge: "My deeds upon my head!" he says, as if admitting he has no other legitimate counter-argument.

Ian Blackwell Rogers as Shylock is this play's other spot-on portrayal. If you are going to do text-centric Shakespeare, as Delise does with this production, you need to shed yourself of the post-Holocaust sensibilities about anti-Semitism and embrace Shakespeare's purpose with the character. Shylock is an Elizabethan theater stock Jewish villain, but Shakespeare gives him a humanist core. Rogers almost gives him a heroic core, but nevertheless keeps his eye on the ball—that Shylock drives the plot through his unquenchable thirst for revenge—not merely by balancing both sides of the character but blending it all into a complex whole. He tells us how much he hates Antonio before he sees him, but when he does see him Rogers's Shylock moves toward the Christian merchant with outstretched hands. Antonio squirms out of the way, and the two repeat this pattern two more times in the scene in which they agree on the loan and a pound of Antonio's flesh if the bond is forfeited. Shylock seems the friendlier of the two in this action, but we already know his feelings don't match his physical gestures, so maybe Antonio is right to feel nervous.

Bassanio in green renaissaince jacket with gold brocade, Portia in a gold, jewell-trimmed dress
Below, Bassanio (Chris Cotterman) courts Portia (Valerie Dowdle)—and vice versa—in Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's Original Pronunciation production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Zach Brewster-Geisz plays Antonio as chronically depressed, which, I believe, is the right portrayal. The play opens with this statement from the merchant: "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad: It wearies me; you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, what stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn; and such a want-wit sadness makes of me, that I have much ado to know myself." I can offer no better description of chronic depression than that. I really wish productions would leave it at that: Shakespeare was beginning to delve into mental illness portrayals at this point in his career, and exploring that element of this play would go far to making more sense of the plot developments. But this production, as many others I've seen, insinuates that Antonio has a crush on Bassanio, and Cotterman's portrayal of the young protégé as gregariously affectionate toward Antonio feeds into the homosexual reading of the merchant's part.

Another interesting interpretation comes from Williams as Tubal in the trial scene, carrying the scales for Shylock as the two Jews enter the court. When Portia asks if balances are available to weigh Antonio's flesh, Shylock replies, "I have them ready," pointing to Tubal, whereupon Williams, watching the proceedings in growing consternation, puts the scales on the floor and storms out. Twenty-first century Christians may want to consider Shylock heroic, but in this production, a fellow of his tribe does not.

Though OP brings out just how bawdy Shakespeare's lines can be, this production doesn't fully mine the comic potential in the characters themselves. That seems to have been purposeful with the princes of Morocco and Arragon, but with other characters it's a matter of staid staging. Except between Portia and Shylock, interactive dynamics are largely missing from this production. Gratiano is a self-centered bore who "speaks an infinite deal of nothing," as Bassanio says. However, in the first scene, as Gratiano speaks 25 lines of "nothing" to the depressed Antonio, a stand-around style of blocking fails to set up this play-long joke. Hauck has strong acting chops (I loved her Mercutio in this company's Romeo and Juliet and her Adriana in The Comedy of Errors last year) and speaks the speech well, but whether in OP or not, this speech is funny because it's all BS, and the only way to translate that fact to a modern audience is to have the other characters on stage responding to it as such. Here, the other characters engage in little more than mugging expressions at the end of the speech.

The Merchant of Venice is not an easy play for an ensemble of actors to get their hands around: the trial scene is easy—it's how to play Gratiano's grating nature, Launcelet Gobbo's prank on his blind father, Jessica (understudy Kerry Brady in a beautifully nuanced performance) and Lorenzo discussing "on such a night," and Lorenzo's relationship with Gobbo that are hard. It's one thing to know how to speak the words in their original form; it's another to explore Shakespeare's original intent with these characters and their behaviors in such scenes. Delise and his actors previously have proven capable of grasping Shakespeare's characters; they prove now that they can manage Shakespeare's own way of speaking. I hope they can keep working at making this marriage work to give us true text-centric Shakespeare productions in the future.

Eric Minton
April 10, 2015

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