Theater Review: The Merchant of Venice at Trinity Rep

Friday, February 10, 2012

 

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You want a pound of what? Stephen Berenson as Shylock, Joe Wilson, Jr., as Antonio, in Trinity Rep's The Merchant of Venice. Photo: Mark Turek.

What happens when your investment is lost at sea?

That brand of maritime misfortune not only fuels the plot of Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice, but also serves as fitting metaphor for Trinity Rep's new production, which opened this week in Providence.

Set in the sea-faring Venice of the 16th century, Merchant opens with a lovestruck Bassanio (Stephen Thorne) seeking to woo the wealthy Portia (Mary C. Davis), but lacking the means. Bassanio asks his friend Antonio (Joe Wilson, Jr.) for 3,000 ducats to fund his troth. Antonio's money is tied up offshore in his ships, but the merchant's love for Bassanio runs so deep that he agrees to "try what [his] credit can in Venice do" on the Rialto, where Shylock (Stephen Berenson), a Jew and a money-lender, makes his living.

A grisly collateral

With Bassanio as the go-between, Antonio makes a deal with Shylock: a 3,000-ducat loan with a grisly collateral, a pound of flesh to be extracted by Shylock if he's not paid back on time.

When news arrives in Venice that Bassanio's ships have sunk (and with them, the promise of repaying Shylock), the Jewish lender gains the chance at revenge for not only his degradations at the hands of Christian Venetians, but also for his daughter Jessica's (Caroline Kaplan) escape from his restrictive home with the Christian Lorenzo (Will Austin).

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He wants what? Stephen Thorne as Bassanio, Rachael Warren as Nerissa, and Mary C. Davis as Portia. Photo: Mark Turek.

Which brings Shylock, and a small dagger, to the very breastbone of Antonio, while Portia dons a judge's robes, assumes a false male identity, and brings salvation to the merchant. She also brings humiliation to Shylock, who has steadfastly maintained that he will have his bond.

A showpiece for actors

The play, a showpiece for male actors to tackle the complex, reviled Jew, and for female actors to embody the intelligent, powerful Portia, is a moral and emotional journey. Despite the anti-Semitism often associated with the play, The Merchant of Venice, when done well, can be a profoundly moving production.

If the ships come back with the goods, that is.

But this season, Trinity Rep's artistic director Curt Columbus has let the ships go down. For one, he has improperly cast this production. Berenson, a wry and interesting presence in the Trinity landscape, brings little mettle or humanity to the central role of Shylock. With kohl-lined eyes and a stagey manner, Berenson seems more like a gaslit player on a vaudeville stage than a modern, nuanced actor mining the fascinating contradictions of Shylock. Berenson has one vocal gear, and it's oratory. It does little to allow us glimpses into the humanity and dignity that Shylock loses at the hands of the "merciful" Portia at the play's conclusion. He also does little to build our belief in a rage that would drive this man to lunge at his debtor, dagger poised to extract a pound of flesh.

Joe Wilson, Jr., as Antonio, is similarly miscast. Wilson preens even when he is not required to do so in a role, and his propensity to chew his words with exaggerated diction makes this Antonio a grimacing boor. When Shakespeare is spoken this way, it remains foreign to our ears and keeps us from empathizing with a character. Pound of flesh from this guy? Take it away.

The women

The women in central roles are better, but not consistently ideal. Rachael Warren, ponderously pregnant, has a wholesome quality that makes her Nerissa, the protective servant to Portia, the Shakespearean equivalent of a good-hearted HR professional (about to go on maternity leave). She's not saucy, nor racy, nor particularly funny--something that this role offers as contrast to Portia's earnestness.

Davis, who gets the plum female role, has a certain androgyny that serves her well in the second act when she undertakes the stiff bearing and stern pronouncement of a male judge, but lacks the femininity and grace to carry the first act, wherein she gamely deals with a line of comic suitors who would have her hand in marriage. It must be said, also, that the best Portias show us their female empathy chafing at the confines of their male counterfeit identities. Those women who show us both qualities at battle, while simultaneously showing us Portia's substantial intelligence guiding her rapid-fire thinking, make the role a truly great one. Not so, here.

Columbus has allowed two comic roles--Portia's suitors from Morocco and Aragon--to become so wildly acted that the characters are barely understandable. Which is an unfortunate use of Fred Sullivan, Jr., who has a veteran's cavalcade of tricks for comedic roles. But allowed to run comedically amok, Sullivan turns the Spanish dolt into a lisping Tasmanian Devil in fright wig and heels. He's a Looney Tunes hallucination.

Music, choreography, and set design

Further, the production value that the relatively well-heeled Trinity can afford--choreography and music, in this case--is grossly misapplied. A drifting, long, and confusing musical number opens the play, and a few songs dot the production with no unifying sound nor sense. The costumes, similarly, are surprisingly off-kilter in this production. The young men look like high school drop-outs, the women like matrons. It's a mishmash, visually.

Finally, Columbus has squandered one of his most valuable resources: the wise artistic hand of longtime resident set designer Eugene Lee. This master designer has created a Venice of catwalks and steps that glint with metallic reference to the ducats that fuel the play's conflict, but also the composition of three small caskets (gold, silver, and lead) that Portia's suitors must choose among for her hand. Secondly, Lee has placed enormous pillars like toppled monuments in key places on the stage. They are both scrolls of Torah and classic Venetian striped poles. It's simple, intelligent, and emotional. The problem is that Columbus' blocking of this production does nothing to take advantage of the architecture of the set. Characters often call to each other from far corners, or from high above to far below, or from mid-audience spots to center stage, but never with any deeper ramifications. Further, the scrolls are never highlighted by positioning of the actors or lighting. If anything, the blocking of this Merchant seems foiled by the set, rather than harnessing it for artistic resonance.

Unfortunately, the bond here is not fulfilled, and in this Merchant of Venice, we are left without the gold we'd so hoped would make it safely to port.

Merchant of Venice runs through March 11, in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater, Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St, Providence.

 
 

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