They say it’s a “problem” play.
That’s why William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is produced much more rarely than many of his other works. But the Rogue Theatre is not one to shy away from challenges. Fie, they say. Let’s take a look at this play; let’s see if we might find in its problems redemptive features as well. The result of their efforts is a very good version of Shakespeare’s comedy. It represents Shakespeare’s work well; the production features fine design elements and director Cynthia Meier has worked successfully to take a sometimes ponderous piece and finds the charm and liveliness in Shakespeare’s comedy. And it’s all supported wonderfully by Jake Sorgen’s music.
The “problem,” ostensibly, is the discomfort created by the character of Shylock, played here by Joseph McGrath, and most pointedly, his Jewishness. It is a stereotypical representation of a Jew who is not just a shrewd businessman, but one who would actually go to court and demand the famous “pound of flesh” when a debtor cannot repay a loan. This legal agreement with the merchant of the title, Antonio (David Morden) was rather lightly made, because the reputation of the successful merchant was stellar and there was thought to be little chance of a business venture failing. Shylock’s suggestion that he be repaid in actual flesh is a bit creepy, but Antonio, so sure is he of his ability to repay, smilingly doesn’t hesitate to agree.
This is not so much a problem with the play as it is a problem with the world. In Elizabethan England there were no Jews, ostensibly, because they had been expelled in 1290. At least Shakespeare allows Shylock to plead his case and quite eloquently, which would have been revolutionary. Today, we are as much or more shocked at the treatment Shylock has received from his Christian neighbors, who jeer and spit at him. But his eventual insistence of extracting an actual pound of flesh instead of accepting payment of double or triple what Antonio owed seems to justify the hatred of him and his tribe.
Although this story is where the focus of conflict is centered, there are all sorts of other things going on, particularly in the realm of courting and wedding, which would be typical of this sort of Shakespearean tale-telling. In fact, the reason Antonio had gone into debt was so his friend Bassanio (Ryan Parker Knox) could get himself looking worthy enough to court Portia Patty Gallagher, a damsel in Belmont whose marriage, as had been decreed by her now-deceased father, was to be determined by a potential suitor choosing from among three caskets, or boxes. There’s quite a bit of fun with her parade of suitors. (Pay close attention to the suitor from Morocco.)
Shakespeare has also contrived the intervention of a superwoman of sorts. Portia, played quite beautifully by Gallagher, intervenes during the trial where flesh is demanding to be measured, dressed as a man and commended by good authority to participate in the proceedings, and does some pretty intensive interpretation of the law that binds Antonio and Shylock. (Part of her input is the much quoted, “The quality of mercy is not strained: It droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven . . “) And when all is said and done, it is Shylock who is disgraced, and ultimately, destroyed.
But Shakespeare’s insights into law and mercy does not end there. Think about it. Portia herself is a lie. She is not who she says she is, and in fact would never be allowed to practice much other than good wife-hood, no less a position in a court of law. She uses power that really is not hers to have to save the day for Antonio and to bring destruction to the Jew. Is this justice?
There are other deceptions as well—the exchange of rings between couples with the promise they will never be removed, no less given away. But a situation in which the gentlemen find themselves requires that they do remove the rings. So when do we act out of loyalty and under what circumstances do we bend the rules? What is justice?
Overall, this is a well-done piece. Chiefly, it’s entertainment lies in its thoughtfulness, not its passion or heart. As is the case with much of Rogue’s work, it has a very cerebral quality. But it lacks something almost intangible which would elevate it from being a well-considered production to one which engages us not only on an intellectual level, but rattles our bones. This is a play which could do that. But we are not quite lead there.
However, we are left to ponder the serious issue of the force of law as an absolute necessity for the creation and maintenance of civilization, and a complementary necessity for a moderating spirit of grace, which seems most surely as native to humans as the recognition that laws are necessary.
There are many good performances, including McGrath’s, which makes Shylock a sympathetic character. There are some that lack fullness and depth. I really didn’t understand who Morden’s Antonio was, and I thought Marissa Garcia’s Lancelet was gimmicky, although it was an undeniably risky and committed performance.
During the trial, Shylock comes in with his scales, ready to measure the flesh he will extract. Ironically, of course, we recognize scales as the symbol of the work of weighing and balancing justice. It’s a rather chilling irony.