The Merchant of Venice
With the Middle East once again writhing in religious conflict, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's The Merchant of Venice couldn't be timelier. Long considered a "problem play" due to its apparent anti-Semitic subject matter, this production directed by Tom Markus achieves the difficult task of finding the moral center of this commonly misdirected and thus misperceived classic.
Taking a tack similar to Brian Freeland's 1999 adaptation for The Lida Project entitled The Merchant of Auschwitz, Markus sets the piece in 1938 fascist Italy, following the introduction of Mussolini's racial laws.
This juxtaposition makes two things clear: while the playwright is by no means sympathetic to Shylock's obsession with his riches, the money-lender's vengeful behavior toward Antonio and his circle is a direct result of the bigotry he has experienced from them; and, while the playwright's Christians talk of good game of lofty ideals, their taunting of Shylock is racism and hypocrisy of the first rank.
Dennis R. Elkins' nuanced performance deftly mines both the comedic and tragic elements in Shylock. When Bassanio initially approaches him for a loan on behalf of his friend Antonio, Markus' directorial insights and Elkins' light touch make it clear that Shylock wants no part in lending to his tormenters, joking with them about an interest-free transaction with only a pound of flesh as collateral.
|Dennis R. Elkins as Shylock|
and Sam Sandoe as Antonio
Photo: Lou Costy
Meanwhile, Portia, a wealthy young heiress who must marry to inherit her deceased father's estate, plays hostess to a series of suitors. Damian Thompson, as the lusty, swashbuckling Prince of Morocco, and Ed Swidey, as the Flamenco-infused Prince of Arragon, bring down the house with their larger-than-life caricatures. The evening's stellar mirth is capped by Lancelot, a commedia dell'arte-inspired fool taken to new heights by Barry Friedman.
Sarah Dandridge astounds with a multi-layered Portia, a goddess-of-all-trades who hams it up with her companion Nerissa, woos Bassanio, and argues fine points of Venetian law. Markus' direction of her "quality of mercy" speech, seated inches across from Shylock and drawing him to the brink of transformation, coupled with Dandridge's gift for scansion, unveils the full potential of this transcendental monologue.
and Carter Pierce Gill
Photo: Lou Costy
Finally, Markus polishes off his inspired work with an ending that befits the difficult subject matter. Carrying Anthony Powell's final scene from the Denver Center's 2005 version one step further, the director leaves Jessica, Shylock's rebellious daughter, out in the cold, barred from society for her Jewish roots by Il Duce's blackshirts and Portia's indifference.
The production does have a couple of rough spots, most notably a weak Antonio. This is attributable to Markus' attempt to cast him as an older, dissolute mentor to Bassanio and friends, rather than as an equal participant in the mindless antics of youth. Unless the world's greatest dramatist and poet spent his career documenting someone else's life, what we have in Antonio is a fictionalized version of Edward de Vere's own experience in Venice, where he borrowed 3,000 pounds from a Michael Lok and lost it all when the merchant ships in which he invested sank.
A minor quibble is the hairdo that Portia uses to disguise herself. While Dandridge's own short-clipped red hair works well for the alter-egos in As You Like It, here it escapes credulity in contrast to Portia's full head of blonde tresses.
Otherwise, this adaptation is filled with well-crafted performances and design work, solving "Merchant's" riddles to a degree rarely achieved.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Merchant of Venice runs through August 18th in repertory with As You Like It and The Tempest at the University of Colorado-Boulder. 303-492-0554 or at www.coloradoshakes.org.