by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Now on stage in Jacksonville Beach at 106 Sixth Street North, and running through March 26, is William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. For information and reservations, call 249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.org.
What kind of play is The Merchant of Venice? Everyone has his own interpretation. We do and so does the play’s Director Dave Alan Thomas, who has set it in Southern California in the year 1954 instead of in Venice in the 1500s. The play is a fascinating combination of comedy and drama, in which there isn’t a completely sympathetic character. In Director Thomas version, Shakespeare’s words are the same, but the clothing is vastly different, as is the very modern, very minimalist set.
This is Shakespeare’s controversial tale of Shylock (T.R. Hainline), a Jewish moneylender, who advances three thousand ducats (about $50,000 in today’s money) for three months to Antonio (Paul Carelli), a Venetian shipping merchant. Antonio in turn lends the borrowed money to Bassanio (Joe Walz), his best friend, so he can court Portia (Kelby Siddons), a wealthy heiress. Shylock agrees to provide an interest-free loan, with the stipulation that Antonio must forfeit a pound of his flesh if he doesn’t repay on time. Antonio, confident his maritime ventures will be profitable well before the money is due, dismisses Bassanio’s concerns and signs the contract.
Shylock hopes for revenge against Antonio, a Christian, who has publicly abused and denigrated him in the past because he is a Jew. He is devastated when his only daughter Jessica (Leslie Richart), taking his money and jewels with her, runs away with Lorenzo (a Christian, played by Joshua Taylor) and becomes a Christian convert. So when Antonio defaults on his obligation, the enraged, unforgiving moneylender demands the fulfillment of his bond in a dramatic courtroom scene in Act II.
But all is not serious, romance abounds. The courting of Portia is one the most humorous scenes in the play. Portia is not free to make her own choice because of conditions in her father’s will. Prospective suitors must undergo a test, choosing a casket in gold, silver, or lead and opening it, to learn if they have the right to marry Portia. Two of the suitors are hilarious and include the always forceful Larry Knight as the Prince of Morrocco, and PBTS newcomer Erick Velasquez as the Prince of Arragon. Bassanio, of course, chooses the correct casket and wins the hand of the very beautiful and very rich Portia. Behind the scenes, Thomas Trauger as Gratiano has secretly courted Nerissa, Portia’s lovely servant, played by Janaye Rodgers; the couple are given permission to marry.
Act II is intense with its twists and turns. Portia and Nerissa, disguised as a male lawyer and a clerk, enter the courtroom to defend Antonio and interpret the laws related to the bond. Dual Critics will leave the outcome for you to discover.
Evan Gould gets high marks for his slapstick portrayal of Launcelot, Shylock’s and later Bassanio’s servant. His scene with his father, Old Gobbo (Cliff Rigsbee), is a show-stopper.
Others in this cast include Jeremy Sylvain (Salerio), Anthony Bido (Solanio), Roger Lowe (Duke/ Morocco’s advisor), Kirby Chritton (Tubal), and Shayna Leigh Lacy (Singer/Portia’s Follower).
The set designed by Joe Schwarz and Director Thomas could have been used no matter where or when the play was set, including Shakespeare’s Venice. A large body of blue water – an allusion to both the canals of Venice and the swimming pools of Southern California – is the most prominent feature. A dark background contrasts with the warm white used for elevated platforms, raised beams that outline the skeleton of a house, and furnishings that include architectural interpretations of rectangular benches.
Making her debut as a PBTS Costume Designer, Sarah Marino has outfitted the cast in interesting, playful costumes that fitted the era, which included sharkskin suits with fedoras for the men and swimsuits with cover-ups and big-brimmed hats for Portia and Nerissa, as well as cocktail dresses with stilettos. Also of interest was the Renaissance garb worn by the contestants for Portia’s hand – and drawing laughs from the audience – the suits that provided bulk for Portia and Nerissa when they appeared disguised (more or less) as males.
Be sure to read Director Thomas extensive Notes from the Director in the program before the show; they will give you insight into his vision for the play. Anthony Hodge was Assistant Director, with Jim Wiggins as Technical Director and Lana Mullins as Stage Manager.
Anti-Semitism was pervasive throughout Europe in Shakespeare’s lifetime and The Merchant of Venice is a product of those times. Merchant is a thought-provoking play with comic relief provided by the playwright to mollify the slurs and indignities heaped upon Shylock and the hardened antipathy with which he responds. The cast was well chosen and well rehearsed, and other than a few rushed lines in the opening scene, the timing and pacing was excellent. In the very demanding and pivotal role of Shylock, T. R. Hainline was superb.
This play is enjoying a new life with a recent successful revival on Broadway starring Al Pacino, which played to sold-out houses. Another production starring F. Murray Abraham is currently playing in New York, to be followed by a national tour. You don’t have to go to Broadway, just to Jacksonville Beach to see one of the Bard’s enigmatic works, which invites multiple interpretations. Don’t miss it.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE theatre review
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM