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Posts Tagged ‘the merchant of venice’

The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phil Gill
St. Louis Shakespeare
November 8, 2019

Addison Brown, Julie George-Carlson, Riley Capp
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

For St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production, director Phil Gill has made a bold move. The Merchant of Venice is known as one of the Bard’s more problematic plays, especially when viewed by modern audiences. Other companies have found various ways of approaching this material to mitigate or somehow try to “fix” some of the problems, but this production seems to go the other way, presenting a fairly straightforward staging–aside from one notable twist–that highlights the difficulties, forcing the audience to confront them and think about what they mean, both for the Shakespearean setting and for today.

The one twist here is that the character of Jewish moneylender Shylock, who is usually played by a man, is played here by a woman (Julie George-Carlson), and as a woman, with all the pronouns and other references previously referring to the character as male changed to reflect the casting. Otherwise, though, nothing else has significantly changed. It’s a difficult story, ostensibly a comedy, in which characters who are supposed to be likable do some especially unsavory things, especially in reference to Shylock and the attitude toward Jewish people in general. When this was written in Shakespeare’s day, the message regarding Shylock may have been considered moderate for its day, but now it’s most certainly not, and the audience is forced to face the reality of how society mistreats and marginalizes those who don’t fit in. So, while the Shylock character does make a demand that seems unreasonable, the staging and portrayal here emphasizes what her reasoning may have been for that. The rest of the story, in which Antonio (Addison Brown) borrows the money from Shylock to help his friend Bassanio (Riley Capp) woo the wealthy Portia (Liv Somner), and some other plot points involving Bassanio’s associates Gratiano (Jeremy Goldmeier), Portia’s lady in waiting Nerissa (Erin Struckhof), as well as Bassanio’s other friend Lorenzo (Joseph Garner) and Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Erin McRaven) are more in the vein of romantic comedy, but these get tied into the Antonio and Shylock dispute eventually, as Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as men to participate in the trial, and the Duke of Venice (Jeff Lovell) presides. There’s also some funny business involving a provision by Portia’s father for how she is to find a husband, involving choosing between three caskets and featuring some hilariously bombastic would-be suitors, the princes of Morocco (Victor Mendez) and Arragon (Duncan Phillips). It’s a compelling story, if more than a little uncomfortable to watch at times, as we see otherwise “noble” characters behaving not-so-nobly in several notable moments, and particularly at the trial, and then after some fairly brutal moments we are expected to switch back to more light romance scenes. It’s jarring, and in this staging remarkably effective.

The casting is, for the most part, excellent. Leading the way is George-Carlson in an especially memorable turn as Shylock. Her Shylock is stubborn, to be sure, but there is also a real sense of pain and anger here, which is credible considering how everyone else treats her. She is the clear standout here, although there are strong performances all around. Brown is something of a laid-back Antonio, but Capp is a lively Bassanio, displaying strong chemistry with Somner’s equally strong Portia. Goldmeier is also memorable as a particularly boisterous Gratiano, who is well-matched by Struckhof’s amiable Nerissa. Mendez and Phillips are also notable in strong comic performances as the would-be suitors, and also with Phillips in an additional role as Shylock’s dissatisfied servant Launcelot. It’s a good ensemble all around, keeping up the pacing and tone well.

The physical staging is limited somewhat by the venue. The stage at Tower Grove Baptist Church isn’t ideal, with a difficult seating set-up and not much in the way of a backstage. Still, the simple set by Kyra Bishop Sanford is in keeping with the traditional setting, even though the frequent scene changes can get monotonous. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler are excellent, however, with rich period detail and well-suited for the characters. The lighting by Tony Anselmo, sound by Kaitlynn Ferris, and props by Trish Baylard also work well for the production, making for a coherent, engaging presentation.

The Merchant of Venice is, for various reasons, not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. It has its moments, but it’s especially problematic in its overall theme. St. Louis Shakespeare is to be commended for facing the problems straight on with this relatively simple, bold staging. It’s a picture of a society that’s not particularly pretty, which forces viewers to reflect not only on the reality of this situation, but on the aspects of our own society that need to be confronted. Even with a few rough edges staging-wise, it’s a truly memorable production.

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District Merchants
by Aaron Posner
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
New Jewish Theatre
January 24, 2019

J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

For their latest production, New Jewish Theatre is staging another literary inspired comedy by Aaron Posner. Like last year’s Chekhov-based Life Sucks, District Merchants takes a new look at its inspiration–this time Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice–and re-imagines the characters and situations in a new setting. It’s a new look at an much-studied and problematic classic that honors its source material while simultaneously challenging and reinventing it.

The story is now set in Washington, DC and Massachusetts in the 1870s. The Civil War is over, slavery is outlawed, but racial tensions and injustices remain. The central figures, who address the audience to introduce themselves at the beginning of the show, are Jewish moneylender Shylock (Gary Wayne Barker), and Antoine (J. Samuel Davis), a black businessman who was born free, and who borrows money from Shylock to help his young friend, Benjamin Bassanio (Rob White) woo a wealthy young woman named Portia (Courtney Bailey Parker). That all sounds like The Merchant of Venice, essentially, but there are notable twists. There are some important things Benjamin hasn’t told Antoine about Portia, and about the manner in which he’s going about pursuing her. Shylock, for his part, is given a lot more backstory, and is a more sympathetic character, although he’s overprotective of his daughter Jessica (Alicen Moser), leading to her wanting to leave his house for good. She’s also attracted to Finn (Paul Edwards), a young Irish immigrant who has ulterior motives for pursuing Jessica, at least at first. Portia, in the meantime, wants to go to Harvard law school and become a lawyer, but she’s not allowed because she’s a woman. That doesn’t stop her, though. Meanwhile, Portia’s longtime maid and confidante Nessa (Rae Davis) is aware of more than she lets on, and challenges Portia on her own biases. There’s also Lancelot (Karl Hawkins), Shylock’s household servant who sympathizes to degrees with both Shylock and Jessica and finds himself in the middle of all the disputes. That’s the setup, really, but there’s a whole lot that goes on here that I won’t spoil. It follows the basic framework of The Merchant of Venice in a lot of ways, but also deviates from that plot in several important ways. Several key speeches from Shakespeare are included, as well, especially notable speeches for Shylock and Portia.

This is a fascinating twist on the source material, which has been subject for controversy and criticism over the years, especially in its treatment of Shylock and Jewish people in general. Here, the twist is that nobody is in the dominant social group in 1870s society. The main characters are Jewish or black, and there’s also the Irish Finn, and Portia who is wealthy and white, but as a woman isn’t allowed to pursue the career she desires, and is expected to make an advantageous marriage. The tensions represented here are personal as well as societal, and larger issues of systemic injustice are also emphasized, with some fourth-wall breaking and direct challenges to the 2019 audience. The tone is still, for the most part, comic, but there’s some poignant drama here, as well, particularly in the expanded backstory of Shylock, which gives his reasons for sheltering his daughter and demanding his “pound of flesh” from Antoine. The dynamics of all the relationships are turned around, but ultimately it’s a comedy and there is still hope.

The staging by director Jacqueline Thompson is fast-paced and dynamic, and the cast assembled here is truly excellent. Davis and Barker are the central figures, and both are terrific. Barker’s Shylock is guarded, insecure, but also proud at the same time, and Davis displays considerable presence as the determined Antoine. Both men energize the stage when they are on it, and their scenes together are especially memorable. There are also impressive performances from White and Parker, who display strong chemistry as Benjamin and Portia; and Moser and Edwards, with equally strong chemistry as Jessica and Finn. Davis, as the witty, occasionally snarky Nessa, and Hawkins as Lancelot also display good chemistry and excellent comic timing. It’s a cohesive ensemble all around, bringing a lot of humor, as well as depth to their portrayals.

Technically, this production is a wonder, with a stunning multilevel set by David Blake and meticulously detailed period costumes by Felia Davenport. Sean Savoie’s lighting also contributes effectively to the mood and tone of the production, as do Zoe Sullivan’s sound and projection, helping to transport the audience back to a different, fully realized time and place.

District Merchants is a funny play, but also poignant and challenging. It takes a well-known Shakespearean tale and turns it around, bringing new depth to the relationships and situations. It also boasts a first-rate cast of local performers. It’s another impressive, intriguing comedy by Aaron Posner, given a remarkable production at New Jewish Theatre.

Gary Wayne Barker
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting District Merchants at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 10, 2019.

 

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