"The Merchant of Venice," American Players Theatre
On Saturday, June 30, we opened our season of American Players Theatre, attending their new production of "The Merchant of Venice", which is a particular favorite of mine. I once wrote an essay choosing "Merchant" as the one Shakepeare play I would keep if I could only keep one, since it combines both Shakepeare's comedy, in the plot I call "The Marriage of Portia," and tragedy, in "The Tragedy of Shylock the Jew."
The APT production from years ago starring Randall Duk Kim as Shylock is still my favorite, but this year's show is very fine indeed with numerous new nuances brought out. The current cast features Jim DeVita as Antonio (the "Merchant" of the title); Matt Schwader as Bassanio, Portia's suitor; Colleen Madden as Portia; and James Ridge as Shylock.
Although Shylock is often referred to as "old Shylock," Ridge plays him as not yet elderly, still vigorous, upright, and kept motivated by his resentments. And the play shows us he has good reason for them as Antonio, Bassanio, and other Gentiles do not soft-pedal their anti-Semitism in the least. DeVita's Antonio is somber, almost depressive, borne down not only by his financial worries but seemingly by a loneliness he momentarily eases among his coterie of young friends. Schwader's Bassanio is well-done but not outstanding: young, cheerful, energetic, loyal, all the role need be. Colleen Madden's Portia is a revelation: as the sought-after bride, she is warm and passionate as opposed to the cool and aloof Portia we frequently see. It is not just that Bassanio is the most acceptable of her many suitors, she actually desires Bassanio and passionately wants him to win her. In Bassanio's choosing scene, it is quite clear that Portia knows very well which is the right box and is willing him to choose correctly. In the courtroom scene, Portia as the young lawyer is not as smooth as often played, showing she is sometimes momentarily taken aback by Shylock's intransigence.
Supporting roles were also well done: Darragh Kennan's Gratiano is his own character and his own man, not just a second-string Bassanio. Jonathan Smoots had a hat trick playing two of Portia's suitors, the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Aragon, as well as the Duke of Venice, which involved a very quick change of not only costume but makeup between the two Princes' roles. The suitors were rather broad caricatures (I thought Aragon was rather influenced by Monty Python's "Spanish Inquisition") but very funny and drew Smoots an ovation. I was intrigued by the portrayal of Jessica, Shylock's runaway daughter. Leah Dutchin played her as a serious, sensitive girl, the better to bring out nuance in the later scenes at Belmont, when Portia, as played by Madden, shows herself a bit uneasy at taking Jessica into her home; and in the late scenes with Lancelot Gobbo and Lorenzo. I did find this a bit difficult to reconcile with the kind of young woman who would so blithely steal from her father, and carelessly barter away the equivalent of his engagement ring to buy an unclean animal. This, however, I think was a directorial decision rather than on the part of the actress, and did support one of the play's major themes.
Jessica's elopment and apostasy are the last straws that drive Shylock to his deadly decision to pursue his bond, and, in the scene where he laments his losses, at least to the Gentiles, he repeatedly refers to Jessica as his "flesh and blood." This was an emphasis we hadn't noticed in the past but which makes a strong connection between Shylock's bereavement and his intention to exact revenge on Antonio.
The courtroom scene, as appropriate to the dramatic climax of the play, was done with great feeling and excellent timing, with peaks of intensity when Antonio's friends rave at Shylock, to a long moment of silence when Bassanio and Antonio embrace for what they think will be the final time. Shylock turns his eyes away from this scene, showing that he is not devoid of human feeling even then, which we all thought was a particularly good bit of acting.
This performance was the second official performance, following two "previews" and an opening night, and there were a few small, barely noticable moments of unsteadiness, but I expect these to be ironed out for future shows.
APT is a jewel. Anything they do is worth seeing if you care for the subject material. Other plays this year are "Timon of Athens" and Shaw's "Misalliance", which we will be seeing, and "Much Ado About Nothing", and Williams' "Night of the Iguana", which we will not. We've seen/done a good "Much Ado" recently and didn't need it, and I find Williams loathsome and don't want it. Nevertheless, I'm sure APT will do fine jobs with all and therefore reccommend them to the interested.