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The Merchant of Venice

Truth in a Commedia Rendering of Shylock

Faction of Fools Theatre Company, Gallaudet Eastman Studio, Washington, D.C.
Saturday, November 19, 2016, Second row center in studio theater
Directed by Paul Reisman

Shylock in a red quilt-like tunik,  black academic robe and red hat and wearing a brown mask with large white mustache and shaggy eyebrows holds a small account book in left hand and grabs the aqua blue tunic of Bassanio, who leans backward with arms spread.
Bassanio (Vince Eisenson, left) suffers the physical consequences as Shylock (Matthew Pauli) computes the terms of the bond for Antonio's loan to Bassanio in the the Faction of Fools commedia dell'arte production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Teresa Wood, Faction of Fools.

How you react to the notion of a commedia dell’arte production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice depends on your attitude toward this, Shakespeare’s most controversial play and its centerpiece Jewish character, Shylock. If you have sympathy for Shylock, you might recoil in horror at the caricature a commedia presentation inevitably will employ. If you think the play should be banned altogether because of its racist elements, even unseen you’ll refer to a commedia presentation as proof of your point. If, like me, you consider the play a Shakespearean comedy with deep psychosocial insights into racism, you’ll embrace a commedia treatment as both enlightening yet great fun.

In fact, this production by Faction of Fools, a Washington, D.C., theater company specializing in commedia dell’arte, meets none of those expectations, no matter your feelings about the play. Rather, it will suprise the play's naysayers and surpass any and all anticipation of the play's fans. This production reaches the realm of revelation, elevating Shakespeare’s text into something both pure and majestic, despite its simple staging and silly slapstick elements. I did not expect to see Shakespeare’s hand so clearly in the composition of this play through the commedia form; and while I expected great performances and have much respect for Matthew Pauli, who plays Shylock, I did not expect such moving character portrayals, let alone one of the most fully fleshed Shylocks I've ever encountered, one that makes you feel for the man rather than the Jew.

The thing is, this should have been expected. If you are not familiar with either commedia dell’arte or the Faction of Fools, you might be misled by either’s nomenclatures into thinking this is tricked-up Shakespeare. Commedia dell’arte, a hyper-physical form of street theater relying on masks and archetypal characters, originated in Italy in the early 16th century and reached London by the 1560s. Shakespeare not only knew of it, he was clearly influenced by commedia. Faction of Fools is steeped in commedia training and experience, to the point that the company can apply the form’s conventions to even modern plays with deeply affecting results—I’m referring to its staging last year of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, one of the most powerful productions I’ve experienced in 40 years of attending theater and cinema.

Equally important, these guys have a deep understanding of Shakespeare, as well. They demonstrated this with their first Shakespearean staging, A Commedia Romeo and Juliet, in 2012, which revealed how the Bard might have incorporated commedia into even that tragedy. More instructive to Merchant, however, was their Titus Andronicus in 2014. It was bloody fun (the term bloody refers to the bodily fluid, not used in British vulgarity sense), but despite the production’s sick humor, it unmasked psychological elements of Shakespeare’s play I’d never seen exposed before.

That is the case with The Merchant of Venice, too. More remarkable, under Paul Reisman’s direction, the commedia dell’arte elements emerge from Shakespeare’s script rather than being layered into it. It's enough to make you believe Shakespeare might have written Merchant as a commedia dell’arte product, without—or, maybe, with—masks (Faction of Fools uses masks, except when they aren’t supposed to, designed by Aaron Cromie).

Reisman certainly brings his own stagecraft to the production, set on Scenic Designer Daniel Flint’s bare platform with silhouette Venetian and Belmont skylines in the background (the production's rich texture comes from the lovely Renaissance Italian costumes designed by Lynly Saunders). Salerio (Natalie Cutcher) and Salanio (Teresa Spencer) are gondoliers, entering and exiting using poles to mime their passage through Venice’s canals (Salerio even arrives at Belmont guiding a gondola carrying Lorenzo and Jessica, played by Ben Lauer and Alexseyia McBride). You’ll see espresso being drunk (in mime, of course), mustache disguises malfunctioning (which may not have been intentional, though such impromptu moments are part of the commedia experience), masks on masks for the masque, and Portia appearing as an apparition in the mind of Bassanio as he describes her to Antonio: “Sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages,” he says, whereupon Cutcher playing Portia tries to wink but only manages to flinch repeatedly.

At one point in the trial scene, the stage is visually divided into three commotions of intense physical comedy: Bassanio tries to revive a fainting Antonio on the right, Gratiano tries to stop Shylock from whetting his knife on the left, and the Duke tries to make sense of the letter announcing the young judge’s (Portia’s) approach at the back. Each is gut-busting funny, so which do you watch? My suggestion: attend the show three times so you can appreciate each fully.

Nevertheless, Reisman gets his cues for other commedia set pieces directly from Shakespeare's text, as some scenes—notably including those that come off as cumbersome in other productions—meld intuitively with commedia dell’arte staging conventions. In the opening scene as Salerio and Salanio try to discern the cause of Antonio’s sadness, the more they hypothesize, the more depressed he becomes, a typical commedia juxtaposition of characters blithely unaware of the pain they are causing another character. The incessant babbling of Gratiano (Flint) as his friends try to shut him up and even carry him away is another typical commedia moment (plus, Gratiano is the name of the comic doctor archetype in  commedia dell'arte). The casket scenes and the introductions of the suitor princes Morocco (Flint) and Aragon (Lauer) are replete with commedia-style slapstick moments as is Launcelot Gobbo’s fiend-versus-conscience shtick, though Ryan Tumulty as Gobbo has moves like Jagger when he impersonates the fiend. What comes at the end of Gobbo’s piece is of even greater evidence of commedia intent: the arrival of Gobbo’s “sand-blind father” (Spencer), with Gobbo not only keeping his identity from his old dad but giving him ridiculous directions to his abode, which is done physically in this production (mercifully, Reisman cuts the bit in which Gobbo convinces Old Gobbo that his son is dead, though that, too, is ripe commedia fare).

Question whether this is Shakespeare writing with commedia dell’arte in mind or Reisman directing with a commedia dell’arte mind; either way, form and script merge most forcefully in the play’s greatest moment, Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew" speech. As Shylock describes a Jew’s various physical human elements, Salerio and Salanio turn themselves into a representation of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous four-armed anatomical drawing of the human body, and Shylock uses a pointer stick as he lectures. It becomes a commedia set piece when he gets to “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” as the three characters get into a circle, pricking, tickling, and poisoning each other in turn. Pauli’s sudden transition to a serious tone with the line, “and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” is so smooth you don’t see the gut punch coming. “If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that,” Shylock continues, and Pauli, despite wearing a thick-mustached brown mask with tentacle-like eyebrows, levels such a charge at the Christians that it snaps them into self-reflective fear. “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.”

Pauli’s portrayal is full of such subtleties. His Shylock is assigned the archetypal commedia role of Pantalone, the greedy man fixated on money, but in the shadings between Pauli’s mask and person we feel real empathy with his Shylock. He doesn't come at you as a victim; he comes at you as a man trying to be a successful businessman in a society that denies him every which way it can. This production doesn’t gloss the pathological viciousness of Shylock’s revenge: in his scene with Tubal (Vince Eisenson), while Shylock’s manic back-and-forth behavior is funny (another commedia standard) it evokes a sorrow evident in Eisenson’s eyes and posture (not to mention Tubal’s mask designed with basset hound sadness).

Where this production separates itself from all other Merchants I’ve seen is pinning Shylock’s determination for revenge to the point of his making the pound-of-flesh bond with Antonio (Tumulty). Shylock calls it a merry sport, and tells Bassanio, “I say to buy his favor, I extend this friendship: if he will take it, so, if not, adieu.” Shylock’s next line, however, which Pauli directs to Antonio, sent shivers up my spine: “And for my love, I pray you wrong me not.” I actually thought Reisman inserted that line, because I never noticed it before. But Shakespeare wrote it, and its noticeable foreboding here comes from Pauli’s slight pause before uttering it and then using the iambic pentameter verse structure to hammer home the line’s importance (with accents on wrong and not). Antonio heeds him not.

Pauli would be the standout in this production of across-the-board fine performances, but Eisenson is his equal, not only as Tubal but in playing Bassanio. We have lauded this young actor’s Shakespearean skills in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company productions, and I was surprised to see him donning the commedia mask (though, as Bassanio, a young lover or Innamorati, he’s maskless). His performance, however, could serve as further evidence of the theatrical connection of Shakespeare to commedia dell’arte. Eisenson is adept at the physical humor, but he also brings many fine-point readings to his roles, as noted in the example of Tubal above. His Bassanio is uncomfortable with Antonio’s attitude toward Shylock in the bond scene, but he’s also so naive that Shylock’s pirate joke goes 10 feet over his head. In his casket test, puppy-like Bassanio seems most fascinated with the gold one, but Portia keeps orchestrating her servants to keep the lead one in front of him.

On a bare platform with curtens in a two-part frame as a background, the cast is in various expectant poses, Antonio at the center on one knee, his white shirt unbuttoned halfway down his hair chest.
The Venetions react to the reading of the judgement by the disguised Portia (Natalie Cutcher, center) in Faction of Fools' commedia dell'arte production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. From left are Nerissa in disguise (Teresa Spencer), Shylock (Matthew Pauli), the clueless Duke (Ben Lauer) behind Portia, Antonio (Ryan Tumulty) on his knees, Gratiano (Daniel Flint), and Bassanio (Vince Eisenson). Photo by Teresa Wood, Faction of Fools.

If a commedia Shylock surprises in how Shakespearean he is, Shakespeare’s Portia surprises in how commedia dell’arte she is. This is a character who is either a very wise 16-year-old or a very childish 35-year-old, and seldom do I see actresses herd all her aspects into a completely holistic character. That’s a moot point in this production. Cutcher plays the comic Innamorati part, making her Portia a silly romantic. As she pleads with Bassanio to hold off undertaking the casket test, she accidentally smacks him with her wild gesturing. The joke is repeated a couple more time (a commedia staple) but then extends to an unexpected but perfect payoff, which comes after Bassanio insists on choosing a casket. Portia pronounces, “Away, then! I am locked in one of them. If you do love me, you will find me out,” and orders “the rest, stand all aloof.” As she herself crosses the stage, Shakespeare has her wend off into a 20-line speech about swans and death-beds and new-crownèd monarchs and dulcet sounds in break of day and sea monsters and Dardanian wives. It’s weird stuff, and so “the rest,” instead of standing aloof, close in around this crazy young lady, whereupon her one final swooping gesture smacks them all—even Bassanio, who had not moved from his place on the opposite side of the stage some 20 feet away.

The production's keenest commedia connection, however, is in Portia's disguise as a “bragging Jack” to take part in Antonio’s trial. Portia's description to Nerissa (Spencer) of her disguise jibes with the stock commedia character Il Capitano, and that is how Cutcher presents Portia as a posing, crotch-grabbing young man (but yet, Portia is not wearing that character’s mask, only a mustache for her disguise). As such, her “quality of mercy” speech is a comic de force, Portia swaggering her way through what she has no idea she’s talking about. I appreciate this because the more I see this play, the more I’ve come to realize that, despite the fame and high ideals of this speech, it is an insulting lecture from a young person of a morally bankrupt privileged class to a disenfranchised member of society who has endured a lifetime of racial abuse and discrimination.

Another character in this production that goes unmasked is Antonio. I was expecting the titular merchant to be an Il Capitano, but Reisman decided to cast him as an Innamorati, a lover. Reisman doesn’t go much further than this assignation in depicting Antonio's relationship with Bassanio, but it allows Tumulty to portray Antonio as a drama queen extraordinaire. Whether he’s negotiating a financial deal with Shylock or about to be sliced and diced by Shylock, Tumulty’s Antonio maintains the same affected attitude, embarking on overly dramatic proclamations. This actually fits Salerio’s and Salanio’s descriptions of Antonio in the text.

If a Merchant focuses overmuch on Shylock, the fifth act—in which Portia and Nerissa conclude their prank of rings on their new husbands—comes off as unnecessary at best, a bore at worst (some directors have cut it out altogether). The scene presented here, full of laughs, both slapstick and intelligent, physical and acted, is not exemplary of commedia dell’arte, per se, but it is a fine example of ensemble acting among accomplished actors, especially in Tumulty’s Antonio, Eisenson’s Bassanio, and Cutcher’s Portia. But we haven’t forgotten Pauli’s Shylock. We’ll never forget that.

Eric Minton
December 8, 2016

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