Friday 7 July 2017

Merchant of Venice is a memorable fairy tale
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & 
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Filthy lucre. Bonds. Blood money. Given the average Canadian carries nearly $1.70 in consumer debt for every after-tax dollar earned, Shakepeare's The Merchant of Venice is less a tale from Italy 400 years back than life in real time Canada.

The ever-popular play is called a "comedy". It is more accurately a "dramedy" or another WS "problem play". Because though it ends with three marriages, it is the socially-shunned Jew Shylock, a loan shark, whose rage and revenge-motives against his righteous Christian Venetian clientele that the play really is all about. An examination of the how & why Xians manage to provoke such rabid emotions in him. 

The love stories of the script are relatively wimpy but fun feminist-lite stuff compared to WS's disquisition about how true the trite biblical invocation was, is, and forever will be : "The love of money is the root of all evil."

Plot quicky to reflect on : Bassanio is a likeable lordly layabout -- a 16th century frat-boy. He drools over Portia who lives from away in idyllic Belmont (the good mountain). Dad has died, leaving her a fat estate. But also conditions on who she can marry. Prospective hubby must first pass an honesty / loyalty test involving a choice among three urns each inscribed with a zen-like koan

Nine suitors originally line up. Six opt out. It is obvious Bassanio will prevail over the slick brocaded Moroccan Moor and the portly puffy Prince Aragon (short for arrogant). But not all will end well until after his buddy and mentor, the ship's merchant Antonio, answers a death warrant in the Duke's court. The famous phrase "a pound of flesh" has been the agreed-to penalty if Antonio defaults on repaying Shylock's 3,000 ducat loan in precisely 90 days. (Antonio has taken out the "merry loan" so spendthrift, broke Bassanio has sufficient funds to travel the 20 miles out to Belmont, there to woo Portia properly.)

While critics over the years have debated how the script is a study in bigotry, greed and vindictive retribution, a kindlier take is that it's more a fairy-tale in the Hansel & Gretel mode. The theme, as noted, is money : whether 'tis a means to an end or an end in itself. Put another way : think love, loyalty and self-actualization of the heart compared to acquired wealth, obedience to custom, and repression of all lyrical impulses such as music, merriment and social intercourse.

Shylock (Warren Kimmel) contemplates his soliloquy to the Duke of Venice at Antonio's trial.
David Blue photo. 
Show themes hi-lited : Director Nigel Shawn Williams makes no bones about his take on the script : "Our world is turning too much of a blind eye upon intolerance, lies, misogyny, human indignities and religious persecution; and now is championing capitalism, charlatans, corruption and chaos... TMoV to me is not a comedy at all but a warning of our impending collective tragedy if we don't awaken." His direction to his cast is to drive home these points. 

In this week's New Yorker magazine, coincidentally, long-time Harvard English professor Stephen Greenblatt -- himself a Jew and now 70-something nearing retirement -- sums up his views of WS's purposes and/or achievements in this play in an article entitled "Shakespeare's Cure for Xenophobia". They are three, and I found each of them compelling : 

(1) "Shakespeare managed to register Shylock's mordant sense of humor, the pain that shadowed his malevolence, his pride in his intelligence, his little household economies, his loneliness. We come to know these qualities for ourselves, not as mere concepts but as elements of our own experience. There's good reason that most people think the Venetian merchant in the play's title is the Jew." [N.B. Conversely, in 19th century England the play was often billed as "The Jew of Venice".]

(2) "What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious."

(3) "Even now, more than four centuries later, the unsettling that the play provokes remains a beautiful and disturbing experience...Shakespeare's works are a living model not because they offer practical solutions to the dilemmas they so brilliantly explore but because they awaken our awareness of the human lives that are at stake."

Bassanio (Charlie Gallant) and Antonio (Edward Foy) plus entourage are intent at court.
David Blue photo.
Production values that shine : Long a fan of floor-level surround staging -- whether horseshoe as here or fully in-the-round -- I found Director Williams' blocking of the cast exploited the full potential of the room, all entrances / exits employed gamely. The use of shoe-shine-size cremation urns rather than full "caskets" as we normally think of them was of course just right, each placed on a communion-style pedestal. 

Use of the McMahen fixed sets was nicely enhanced by projections and light show effects, and the Pennefather soundscape was mostly punchy & quick, appropriately so.

Drew Facey's costumes were nonpareil. Business suits. Lacey layered elegant dress for Portia. Hooded shrouds for the masque sequence. Chippy just-this-side of slutty threads for the gentlewomen.

Couple of notes on interpretive staging : One problem directors and actors of Shakespeare in modern times face is voice modulation. Whether as actors they believe Billy Bard won't be understood unless their delivery of his Elizabethan diction is Shouty!  -- or whether they are coached to do so -- it's an unfortunate habit worn by many in this production. Some on occasion, some ad nauseam.

Another feature to note goes back to Director Williams' intents in his staging. Just about the only laughter that occurs across the night among the actors -- except for the clown Lancelet -- is when the frat-boys and their "gentlewomen" friends are pounding back shooters in the bar. That and when these same gentlewomen Saleria (Adele Noronha) and Solania (Kate Besworth) mock Shylock who publicly rants about his runaway daughter and her theft of his money & jewels. Mimicking dogs humping in the street is cleverly executed sardonic stuff, but not a wit blithe or risible.

Acting pin-spots : No question the night belongs mostly to Warren Kimmel as Shylock. The "shouty" critique above notwithstanding, Mr. Kimmel's seething, barely controlled rages at the grievances he suffers from the Xians is tour de force acting. His discovery of daughter Jessica's abscondment with not only a Xian but with his jewels and ducats and late wife's gifted turquoise ring made the evening by itself. 

Shylock is stuck, he says, on "justice" and "the law" -- mercy has no play in his life. The 3,000 ducat loan to Antonio generated a "bond" -- the pound-of-flesh debt that he demands be paid literally by cutting out Antonio's heart. "I'll have my bond!" he insists at court -- that single word bond repeated 31 times across the night by Shylock and others. (No accident, this : WS knew a slew of synonyms but liked the pound-pound-pound effect of using this single word over-&-over-&-over.)

As Portia, Olivia Hutt (grandniece of celebrated Canadian actor the late William Hutt) turns in a choice and crafted and nuanced performance. She is poised (directing her staff) and angst-ridden (the urn scene) and righteous (the final ring scene) and calculating (her courtroom turn as Balthazar). Opposite her Luisa Jojic as Nerissa was a terrific confidante and co-conspiritor and schemer.

Charlie Gallant as Bassanio and Kamyar Pazandeh as Gratiano were perfectly cast for their roles : terrific fun to watch each play off one another and their chums.

Bassanio (Charlie Gallant) chases Portia (Olivia Hutt) so long she finally catches him. Or him her. Or both.
David Blue photo
And not to forget Andrew Cownden as the clown Lancelet : he had a series of delightful pirouettes and verbal nonsense sequences that provided precisely the soupçon of comic relief that Billy Bard knew the groundlings out front required. Particularly given the "messaging" assigned to this version otherwise.

Who gonna like : As most traditional theatre historians aver, originally Merchant was thought to be taken by Elizabethan audiences as almost pure comedy. Shylock was to be laughed at for all his peccadilloes and hang-ups. I don't buy it in the least. 

I find Shylock one of the richest characters ever devised by WS. That said, while Director Nigel Shawn Williams has put together an emphatic and impassioned interpretation of the piece, methinks he could have lightened things up just a bit, particularly the final "ring revelation" scene preceding the characters' nuptials. Then again were I more Justin Trudeau's age than Stephen Greenblatt's, I would no doubt shout out a big Huzzah! to Williams for his consistency and honesty of interpretation on his terms in 2017. 

The contemporary staging replete with iPhones works smartly. But in the end, it is the work of Warren Kimmel particularly that generates the necessary "bond" by Bard that makes this presentation so welcoming and rewarding and necessary a summer stock theatre piece to seek out and just sink into, like one would a Kits Beach gentle wave just a coupla blocks away.

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the Howard Family stage, Vanier Park. Performances : 41 shows between now and the September 16th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ bardonthebeach.orgRun-time 120 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Nigel Shawn Williams. Costume Designer Drew Facey.  Scenery Designer Marshall McMahen.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir. Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Sound Designer Patrick Pennefather.  Projection Designer Conor Moore.  Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith.  Assistant Stage Manager Ruth Bruhn. Apprentice Stage Manager Jennifer Stewart.  Directing Apprentice Wendy Bollard.

Performers :  Kate Besworth (Beatrice; Solania).  Andrew Cownden (Lancelet). Paul Moniz de Sa (Balthazar; Tubal).  Edward Foy (Antonio).  Charlie Gallant (Bassanio).  Olivia Hutt (Portia).  Luisa Jojic (Nerissa).  Warren Kimmel (Shylock).  Chirag Naik (Lorenzo).  Adele Noronha (Saleria).  Kamyar Pazandeh (Gratanio).  Nadeem Phillip (Prince of Morocco; Duke of Venice).  Carmela Sison (Leonarda; Jessica).

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