Tragic Comedy

Uneven direction adds flaws to risky Merchant of Venice.

Although it's a comedy, The Merchant of Venice is far darker than such sunny Shakespearean offerings as Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's also a difficult piece for modern audiences because of the central figure of Shylock. Shylock is the money-lending Jew to whom Antonio, the merchant of the title, turns when he needs money. Antonio signs a "merry bond" -- which he believes to be a joke -- that states he will forfeit a pound of his own flesh if he cannot repay the debt. The money is given by Antonio to his friend, Bassanio, so that the latter can woo the rich, beautiful Portia, and the wooing goes well. But when Antonio's ships are lost at sea and he's unable to pay his debt, Shylock pursues the murderous penalty in the courts.

This plot is derived from anti-Semitic medieval sources. During the trial scene, Shylock seeks justice and revenge in Old Testament terms, and Portia asserts the primacy of mercy -- which she and the court see as a purely Christian attribute. Antonio comes within a hair's breadth of losing his life; the young Venetians cheer the Jew's ultimate humiliation. This scene is intensely uncomfortable to watch; it's hard to square it with the love entanglements and the fairy-tale story of Portia's suitors that make up the rest of the play.

The trial scene is followed by much teasing and laughter among the lovers and a lyrical interlude between Jessica, Shylock's daughter, and the Christian, Lorenzo, with whom she had eloped earlier.

John Hutton in The Merchant of Venice.
Terry Shapiro
John Hutton in The Merchant of Venice.

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Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 24, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org
Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex

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How is a modern director to deal with all of this? In Shakespeare's time, Shylock was played in a flaming red wig as a caricature to be mocked and hated. In the nineteenth century, actors began focusing more on the character's humanity. "I look upon the role as the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and most ill-used," said the famed English actor Henry Irving.

It helped that Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, was unable to create an entirely two-dimensional character and had given Shylock a couple of extraordinary speeches, one revealing the daily humiliations he suffered and a second in which he passionately asserted his humanity: "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?"

Some directors simply take out the most problematic language -- a slew of Christian jeers and such nasty Shylockian excesses as "I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear." Denver Center director Anthony Powell, however, has chosen to present The Merchant of Venice as written. It's a brave and intelligent choice, but also a risky one. If we acknowledge, as I think we have to, that the derision shown toward Shylock by the other characters would have been shared by Shakespeare and most of his contemporaries, that these people would have seen the forced conversion of a Jew as an unmitigated good, then the questions arise: Does the play still have value? How do we balance its anti-Semitism against its eloquence and charm? Are we to take Merchant as a historical document, justify it because no writer can see beyond the ethos of his own times, and decide that its poetry redeems what's ugly in it? I have no answers. Every time I see The Merchant of Venice, it leaves me more uneasy -- though I did attend a successful production in London in which the play became pure tragedy, with Shylock looming above the action, a figure as evil as Macbeth and as deeply wronged as Lear.

Material this tricky requires a strong directorial vision, and the Denver Center production feels fragmented and lacking in balance and authority. As Shylock, John Hutton has some excellent moments, particularly his delivery of the "I am a Jew" speech, but his overall performance lacks passion and conviction. In many productions, Antonio is an almost peripheral character despite his centrality to the action, but Bill Christ gives him a stature that's close to heroic. We don't understand Antonio's melancholy, but we sense that this is a man who longs for virtue and anguishes over his own faults. No one else in the cast matches Christ for interest and intensity. The young Venetians are shallow and frivolous -- as I'm sure Powell intended -- but sometimes they seem like Lilliputians swarming around Antonio's knees. Bassanio is feckless as written; as played by Don Burroughs, he's so lacking in depth that you can't figure out what Portia sees in him. January LaVoy's Portia comes close to redeeming the production, however. She has charm and playfulness allied with dignity and strength -- though I would quarrel with one of her interpretations. It's Portia who devises the legalism that saves Antonio's life. As played by LaVoy, she does this in a panic, and only as Shylock's blade is about to pierce Antonio's chest. It's hard to believe that this ethical and intelligent woman would insert herself into a life-and-death struggle so unprepared. David Ivers is a lively, interesting Gratiano; Mary Dolson's spunky, joyous Nerissa lights up every scene she enters.

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