As I mentioned in a recent post, Merchant of Venice was the first Shakespeare play I encountered in its entirety, in Grade 9 English. I think I saw a Stratford production a year or two later. I don’t think I’ve read it, seen it or thought about it much since. But when I heard that the 3rd year BFA students were going to be doing it this winter, I immediately recalled the first lines “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. It wearies me; you say it wearies you” and the last “Well, while I live I’ll fear no other thing, so sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring”. I didn’t have them quite word perfect, but surprisingly close. Maybe that was because one of the Grade 9 assignments had me producing a radio play (cassette tape recording) of life in the 17th century, and I put in the start and end of a monotone performance of Merchant of Venice.
Studying the program before the performance started, I saw that some minor characters had been cut (Old Gobbo, assorted friends of Antonio, servants), to cover the rest with the ensemble of ten actors. I also picked up that a couple of characters had been gender-switched, with Bobbi Goddard cast as Antonia and Morgan Yamada (in the performance I saw) cast as the Duchess of Venice. Bobbi Goddard also played Shylock’s friend Tubal as male, with sidecurls and beard.
Having a female Antonia worked really well. Bassanio’s affection for his old friend was obvious in his gestures and glances, and although she was in some ways less effusive about him, the text has her prepared to pledge her life to get him the money, so it feels credible. The subtext about how it must feel to be the old friend when Bassanio is prepared to abandon everything for his new love, oblivious about how this shifts the friendship, is particularly obvious with a female Antonia, and I thought Ms. Goddard did this part very well, in an understated way that she doesn’t expect Bassanio to pick up on. (I am always on Team Éponine.)
I didn’t know what to call the period of the costumes and stage-business, especially the part with the impressive cocktail mixing by Nerissa (Nicole Hulowski), until I saw Mary Poppins the next night and recognised that they were about the same. So, approximately Edwardian. Most of the men in business suits of generous cut, Shylock (Joseph Perry in the performance I saw) with a large black kippah and visible fringes of a tallit, businesswomen (Antonia and the Duchess) in fitted jackets/bodices and skirts like Mary Poppins and the other young women (Portia, Nerissa, Jessica) in high-necked gowns like Mrs Banks. That was an interesting choice, making it modern enough that the female Antonia could be credible, but long enough ago that the treatment of Jews by the Venetian society was both easier to believe and easier to accept than in a modern setting. It was still disturbing, though. The audience around me was gasping or sighing most in the parts where people casually insult or tease Jessica (Natalie Davidson) about her religion/ethnicity, but I think I was even more bothered about the happy-ending resolution to the court case having Shylock forced to turn Christian. In a powerful statement from stage design, after Shylock leaves the court (is hauled away? I can’t remember) abandoning his well-worn Torah on the floor, lighting covers it in a cross shape. I felt sorry for Shylock, even in the speech when he finds out that his daughter’s taken off with his money. I was also thinking about how the way he dominates his daughter is characteristic of how we often expect to see patriarchs in ethnic minorities, whether or not it is a fair portrayal.
I did not feel sorry for him in the courtroom scene though. And the part about preparing Antonia to lose a pound of flesh from her bosom was much more horrifying and effective for me with Antonia being female. I thought it was convenient but not quite believable that the Duchess was prepared to accept the judgement of the unknown doctor of laws (Kabriel Lilly as Portia) on the basis of a letter of introduction, but the Duchess in this story was very similar to the Duke of Syracuse in Comedy of Errors, being required to follow the law but wishing for excuses to be merciful. Also, it reminded me that in the most recent production of Comedy of Errors that I’d seen, the ruler of Ephesus was played as a woman but referred to as Duke (by Julia Van Dam at Red Deer College) and that worked just as well as making Venice ruled by a Duchess.
Bassanio, Portia’s successful suitor, was played by Maxwell Lebeuf. His decision-making speech “Tell me where is fancy bred” was done well as an unaccompanied song. His impulsive irrepressible sidekick Gratiano is Hunter Cardinal, with Cheshire-cat grin. I enjoyed watching the contrast between the two couples, the reserved Portia and cautious Bassanio compared to Gratiano and Nerissa’s more immediate joyful connection. Lorenzo (Dylan Parsons) is a bit more of a puzzle, because Gratiano makes fun of him as being serious like Bassanio, but he also seemed somehow younger. The scene with Lorenzo and Jessica canoodling on a riverbank while house-sitting was sweet.
The scenes with the unsuccessful suitors were also amusing, Hunter Cardinal as the Prince of Morocco with fez-like hat using his scimitar for a phallic reference (flashback to Lysistrata on that), and Dylan Parsons as the Prince of Arragon, in leather pants and Castilian lisp, reminding me of the Spaniard Don Armando in the recent Studio Theatre production of Love’s Labours Lost (Oscar Derkx). I particularly enjoyed Nerissa’s grimaces behind their backs while Portia’s good manners prevented her from showing what she was thinking. Launcelet Gobbo was the typical silly errand-runner character used in a lot of Shakespeare. In the performance I saw he was played by Zvonimir Rac.
The Shakespearean language was managed coherently and dramatically by the whole ensemble (who were coached by Shannon Boyle). I love when you don’t notice that you’ve been listening to unrhymed iambic pentameter until one character suddenly speaks in prose or in a rhyming couplet, and this production did that well. I caught one small line fumble but it wasn’t distracting.
The last performance of this production was tonight. You can look forward to seeing the BFA Class of 2015 in next year’s Studio Theatre season. And if they’re doing anything before that, well, I hope someone sends me a Facebook invitation.