Something is happening at the University of Delaware's theater program, from which the Colorado Shakespeare Festival has drawn a fair amount of its acting talent in the past few years. I imagine an elderly English actress running the place, dispensing advice on diction and elocution over china teacups. From the sampling we've seen here, Delaware's actors have musicality and precision; they speak Shakespeare with style; they're undaunted by iambic pentameter. I noticed this first with Sarah Fallon's performances as Titania in the otherwise forgettable 2002 Midsummer Night's Dream, and a year later when she played Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. But there are drawbacks to this focus on speech: It can make you feel as if you're sitting down to a meal whose chef is more interested in presentation than substance.
In this year's production of The Merchant of Venice, all of the women -- Sarah Dandridge, who takes the role of Portia; Sara Valentine, as Portia's maid Nerissa; and Gisela Chipe, playing Shylock's daughter Jessica -- trained in Delaware, as did two of the men: Damian Thompson and Ed Swidey, who provide dueling, over-the-top "my foreign accent's more atrocious than yours" comic turns as the princes of Morocco and Aragon. When Portia says "leaps," her voice rises theatrically on the word. If anyone says "love," a hand flies to the bosom. Any mention of sex, and the mentioner swivels his hips or gestures lewdly toward his crotch. People just don't talk like this.
Portia, in case you've forgotten, is the rich, beautiful woman with whom a young Venetian named Bassanio is desperately in love. To court her, he attempts to borrow money from his friend Antonio. But Antonio's ships are at sea, so he, in turn, asks Shylock, the money lender, for funds. Shylock proposes "a merry sport." He'll loan the money, interest-free, but if Antonio fails to repay it, the penalty will be a pound of his flesh.
For the last four centuries, Shylock has served as a kind of cultural barometer. Despite the fact that Shakespeare gave the character a certain amount of complexity, along with a sardonic wit and a couple of stinging speeches aimed at those who mocked him for his Jewishness, Elizabethan audiences would have seen him as a villain, pure and simple, and happily hissed his entrances. But the Victorians were more interested in Shylock's suffering, and their actors gave him sorrow and humanity. Once World War II revealed the consequences of the kind of anti-Semitism so casually voiced by Shakespeare's young Venetians, the question of how to play the role came into sharpened focus. Some directors, wanting to ensure that Portia, Bassanio and Antonio remained likable, sanitized the text, taking out the worst anti-Semitic gibes; others excised Shylock's ugliest utterances -- "I would my daughter were dead at my feet and the jewels in her ear," for example -- to make him seem more victim than perpetrator.
Director Tom Markus, who has clearly been influenced by Trevor Nunn's brilliant 1999 London production, has refrained from this kind of editing. He has set his Merchant in 1930s Italy, as Mussolini began his repression of the Jewish population, and the explicitly fascist backdrop does a lot of work, on some level excusing Shylock's miserliness and bloodlust. Sure, those things are bad -- but look at the provocation. And we all know that what's about to happen to Shylock, and to other Italian Jews, is far, far worse than anything he could think up. Besides, Dennis R. Elkins's Shylock may indeed be joking about the pound of flesh -- maybe he really does want a better relationship with Antonio -- before he's hurled into a frenzy of rage by the fact that Jessica has run off with a Christian, helping herself to fistfuls of his money on the way out. He's clearly tormented throughout by his own villainy. It also helps that Sam Sandoe makes Antonio such a prig that you rather like the idea of someone carving a pound of flesh out of him.
The fascist elements of the production provide a mildly pleasurable frisson, but they feel more symbolic than real, and they don't really provoke the level of tension that they should. Here's Shylock in the courtroom, defiant, surrounded by angry young blackshirts who periodically have to be restrained by their cohorts. This should be terrifying: You should fear that at any moment, Shylock will be clubbed to the ground. But the action feels neither that menacing nor that real.
Apparently Portia and her friends are cheerful participants in their country's descent into darkness. She is, for example, extraordinarily rude toward Jessica. But how do we reconcile this contemptible behavior with all the sunny scenes of love and courtship, or with her strength and wisdom in the courtroom? Sure, people can and do harbor contradictory impulses. But the contradiction should be more troubling -- as it is in life when you discover that someone you like holds abhorrent views. This Merchant doesn't force you to try to understand how these elements interact. You note the blackshirts; you're charmed by the humor. One seems to have nothing to do with the other.
Overall, this is a cleaner production than I've seen from the CSF in a while, and one that weds the various directorial concepts better with the text. I liked the scene in which Lancelot Gobbo, Shylock's servant, uses a pair of puppets to act out both his own ambivalence about leaving Shylock's employ and a bit of dialogue with his father (in Shakespeare's script, the father actually appears, and it's a tedious and unnecessary scene). Barry Friedman makes Gobbo one of those recognizable everyman clown figures: Buster Keaton with an Italianate edge. And isn't there a touch here of Cabaret's smoky, knowing Emcee?
The first scene between Portia and Nerissa is Delawarean: giggly, gestural, overplayed. But these are talented women, and they inhabit their roles more and more deeply as the evening progresses. The big trial scene has to belong to someone. Usually, it's Shylock. At the Denver Center a couple of years ago, it curled up in the lap of Bill Christ's Antonio. Here, Dandridge takes it, and she's killer -- tall, graceful and beautiful, and with a voice that, when it's animated by real feeling, is pure music. She delivers her "quality of mercy speech" directly to Shylock, her face close to his, in a genuine attempt at conversion, and it's a stunning moment.
Elkins first presents Shylock as a smug, powerful and calculating businessman, and it seems we're going to get a completely original take on the role. There are also some strong emotional moments. But by the trial scene, the performance has lost all specificity and dissolved into a froth of rage, anguish and self-pity.
As written, Bassanio is a bit of a wimp, but Carter Pierce Gill gives him a mixture of intelligence and naiveté that's interesting and very appealing. Chipe is an unusually down-to-earth and spirited Jessica. Stephen Weitz's Gratiano is solid and humorous, and Geoffrey Kent is a capable Lorenzo, though I'd like to have understood his feelings for Jessica more clearly. Does he truly love her? Is he ambivalent about her Jewishness? Has he deserted her at the end? During the trial scene, I found my gaze returning to Zack Fine's silent Tubal again and again -- quite a trick for an actor with no lines -- and the moment that he stood up, looked at Shylock and walked slowly out of the room was very compelling. Even if, like Portia's face-to-face with Shylock, it came straight from the Trevor Nunn production.
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