Sunday, October 06, 2013

REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice by the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble

One-word, spoiler-free review: Brutal.

A longer review follows, with some spoilers if, like me, you don't actually know anything about this play other than the name "Shylock" and the phrase "a pound of flesh."

Synopsis (full of SPOILERS): 

Young Bassanio (Aaron White) has a problem. He wishes to travel from Venice to distant Belmont to pursue the hand of Portia (Cassandra Pisieczko), a young heiress whose late father decreed shall have her future husband determined through a test: suitors must choose from one of three boxes, gold, silver, or lead, each with its own warning. One of them contains an image of Portia, and the man who chooses that box will win her hand in marriage along with her great inheritance, but selecting either of the other two condemns its chooser to be forever alone. But Bassanio lacks the funds to finance such a venture, so he seeks a loan from his friend Antonio (James Goode), the titular Merchant of Venice. Unfortunately Antonio finds himself lacking liquidity, with all of his wealth tied up in three trading vessels off in three distant ports. But, seeing Bassanio's need, he agrees to seek a loan from Shylock (Tom Byrn), a despised Jewish moneylender (who, unlike Antonio, demands interest on the money he lends - a source of conflict between the two.) Bassanio pleads the situation to Shylock, who agrees to a three-month loan to Antonio, who expects to have his trading profits in hand in just two months, allowing him to pay off the loan well before its due date. But Shylock, generally scorned by Venetian society and particularly put upon by Antonio, stipulates a unique penalty clause: should Antonio default on the loan, he shall be bound to pay a penalty of a pound of his own flesh. After some trepidation, Antonio agrees freely.

Meanwhile, Bassanio's friend Lorenzo is scheming to run off with Shylock's lovely daughter Jessica (Sophie Schulman) after she renounces her religion and converts to Christianity, all while Shylock is in negotiations with Antonio. Bassanio and his sidekick Gratiano (Daniel Roth) travel to Belmont, where most of Portia's suitors have either failed or given up the game. A Moorish prince only recently arrived (Daniel Roth again) is the last holdout, but he chooses poorly and is sent back to his own land empty-handed and with an oath to forevermore remain single. Portia celebrates his failure with these lines:

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

Shylock is enraged and heartbroken at his daughter's betrayal, and even more so with the wanton thefts of his cash and jewels that she used to finance her flight with Lorenzo. Shylock's friend (and fellow Jew) Tubal (still yet again Daniel Roth) brings more bad news: Antonio's ships have all met separate disasters, and he is now unable to repay the loan. While Shylock at first laments the loss, his rage rallies him when he realizes that he will be able to seek his revenge against society in general and his longtime abuser Antonio in particular by keeping to the letter of his agreement and extracting his pound of flesh.

Meanwhile, back in Belmont, Bassanio has wooed Portia but now faces the test of the three boxes. Carefully considering the symbolism of each box's materials as well as the meanings of the attached messages, he successfully chooses the right box and wins Portia's hand and all that comes with it - including a ring presented by Portia that symbolizes Bassanio's commitment to her, given on the condition that he will never remove, sell, or lose it. Gratiano reveals that they shall have a double marriage, as he has successfully wooed Portia's friend Nerissa. But their joy is short-lived as the fugitives Lorenzo and Jessica arrive in Belmont with word of the loss of Antonio's trading fleet and his ability to repay his loan, and Shylock's determination to have his pound of flesh. Bassanio is distraught, as he is unable to repay the loan himself, but Portia points out that she is the heir to immense fortune, and upon their marriage he will be able to repay Shylock many times over.

Bassanio and Gratiano return to Venice to seek Shylock's mercy and repay his loan, while Lorenzo and Jessica stay behind at Portia's. But Shylock, wounded and angry, will have none of it, and demands that the letter of the deal be observed - or Venice itself will lose its reputation among the traders who use the city as a hub. The Duke of Venice (Samantha Norton) concedes the validity of Shylock's position, but seeks his mercy - telling him that all the world is anticipating a last-second change of heart. A lawyer (or judge, he is referred to as both) and his assistant arrive to work Antonio's defense, but Antonio has resigned himself to keeping his grisly deal, and to the death that will inevitably result from it. Shylock, after several aborted attempts, steels his determination to remove the pound of flesh - or at the very least, to kill his debtor and longtime abuser. But the lawyer - actually Portia in disguise, secretly come to Venice with Nerissa - has one last ploy: while Shylock is owed his pound of flesh, nowhere is the deal is it stipulated that he may draw one drop of "Christian" blood, and he will be sternly punished if he does. Stymied by the impossibility of collecting that which he is due without drawing blood, Shylock regretfully concedes that he has lost, and agrees to the payment from Bassanio as promised, or at the very least to the repayment of his principal. But the false lawyer has one more card to play: as an "alien" who has threatened the life of a citizen, Shylock is subject to the loss of his property: half to the injured citizen, half to the state. Shylock pleads that the loss of his property will render him penniless and unable to conduct business. Antonio calls on the Duke's mercy, allowing Shylock to keep his property on the condition that he convert immediately to Christianity, and pledge his fortune to his "son" Lorenzo and his daughter Jessica. In agony, Shylock agrees.

The false lawyer and her partner are not done yet, as "he" demands one thing only from Antonio as payment for winning his case and his life: the ring worn by Bassanio, the one he had pledged to never remove, sell, or lose. Bassanio refuses, to Portia's delight, but after Portia and Nerissa leave, Antonio convinces Bassanio to relinquish the ring. Gratiano is tasked with delivering the ring to the lawyer, and he catches up to Portia and Nerissa (still in disguise) as they plan their return to Belmont. Portia is devastated at Bassanio's betrayal of his oath, and Nerissa decides to try to separate her own husband from his ring.

Portia and Nerissa hurry home to Belmont, where they are reunited with Lorenzo and Jessica. Bassanio and Gratiano follow soon after, whereupon they are taken to task for the removal of their rings. Portia supplies a "new" ring to Bassanio, who is mystified to see that it is the same ring he had before. Portia reveals that she got it from a lawyer, with whom she had slept the night before. Nerissa joins in the fun by revealing that she has been sleeping with the lawyer's assistant. Gradually Bassiano realizes that the lawyer and his assistant were Portia and Nerissa in disguise. Portia then supplies good news for all: to Antonio, the fact that his trading ships have returned successfully, and were never sunk at all, while to Lorenzo she reveals his good fortune in becoming Shylock's heir - and Shylock's conversion to Christianity. The play ends, and everybody's happy.

Only that's not what happened. At all.


The Merchant of Venice is a difficult play to approach, as director Andrew Hubatsek admits. Racism and anti-semitism fill the work, even in this pared-down version. As his director's note points out, early versions of the play presented Shylock as a pure villain, while more modern versions emphasized the wrongs done to him, and even the villainy of those around him, the other characters in the play. This is a "Comedy" in the strict sense that none of the main characters wind up dead (which is what distinguishes Shakespeare's "Tragedies.") But Shylock's arc is in no way a happy one. In Shakespeare's day his ending would be seen as worthy of rejoicing; having accepted Christ, even under duress, he is now no longer subject to the just punishment seen as coming to all Jews. A similar happy fate awaits his daughter Jessica, even though she is still referred to as an "infidel" after her conversion. Tom Byrn imbues his Shylock with rage, righteous rage - rising and bubbling over in the public places of Venice as he confronts Salanio (the ever-flexible Richard Cannaday, in one of three distinct roles) with the classic soliloquy:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not

In the courtroom, demanding what he is owed from Antonio, he pastes a veneer of calmness over his rage, coolly relying on legalities to make his case. When those same legal niceties are turned against him he collapses like a man with his legs cut off. But Portia, cruel Portia, is not content with defeating Shylock. She must destroy him as well. In short order he has lost his daughter, his debt, and his case. Now he faces a choice: lose his property and his livelihood, or lose his religion and his self. Broken, defeated, and destroyed, he chooses the latter, With trembling hands Antonio removes a crucifix on a chain that had hung around his own neck (and had been thrown aside by Shylock as he prepared to take his pound of flesh) and places it around the neck of Shylock, who has removed his skullcap as a sign of renouncing his religion.

In the final scene the characters all react with growing joy at the news of their good fortunes - all except Jessica, whose face and attitude reflect a dawning horror. She has betrayed her father and her religion. She has abandoned them both, has stolen his money and prodigally squandered it, has fueled his rage and helped bring about his misfortune and his fate. As the other characters exit the stage, she stands alone in the gathering darkness and sings a mournful Jewish song; her father, bare-headed, appears in the shadows and slouches despondently. The lights go down as she finishes the song, leaving the stage in darkness.

Pretty brutal for a comedy.

I've never seen The Merchant of Venice before, nor was I familiar with the particulars other than the character of Shylock the moneylender and the details of the "pound of flesh" contract (which I picked up either from "Se7en" or the absolutely brilliant 1973 satire "Theatre of Blood" which, if you haven't seen, you must see!), so I didn't know what to expect, nor did I know how various bits would turn out. I even forgot whether this was a Comedy or Tragedy, so I was expecting the body count to begin at any moment.The acting and staging is superb, and Andrew Hubatsek (whom I have seen play Macbeth, Touchstone the Fool in As You Like It, and several other parts) directed beautifully, and was also responsible for the adaptation. The play runs through October 20. Details are available at the Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble site.

(The full, unedited text of the play is available here.)

1 comment:

Syreeta said...

Hello, and thank you for the terrific review! Please don't forget our Ensemble Intern Phil Czekner as Lorenzo in the cast list. He's a gem!

Thanks again for supporting BTE, and for writing about the arts!

Syreeta at BTE