“The Merchant of Venice” is a troubling play

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"The Merchant of Venice" at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. In the foreground: John Keabler as Bassanio. Pictured in background from left to right: Rachel Towne as Nerissa, Melissa Miller as Portia, Joe Penczak as Tubal, Ian Gould as Gratiano. Photo by Jerry Dalia.

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is ranked among his comedies, though it is not as raucous as The Comedy of Errors or The Taming of the Shrew, nor as lyrical as As You Like It or Twelfth Night. In many modern-day opinions, it is Shakespeare’s “anti-Semitic play,” condemned for its expression of societal attitudes toward Jews circa 1590. It contains elements of both; but at its heart the play, now being presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, presents a troubling view of how a society treats the “other” in its midst, a problem that resounds with audiences in all eras, especially today.

"The Merchant of Venice"at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Directed by Robert Cuccioli. Pictured foreground: Andrew Weems as Shylock. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.
“The Merchant of Venice” at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Directed by Robert Cuccioli. Pictured foreground: Andrew Weems as Shylock. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.

In this case, the society is that of the Christian city-state of Venice, and the “other” is the Jewish population. Antonio, the title character, is asked by his friend and protègè Bassanio for a sizable loan so that he can woo the beautiful heiress Portia. Not having the funds at hand and time being a critical factor, Antonio seeks a loan from the Jewish financier Shylock, whom he has previously publicly insulted and humiliated. Shylock agrees to the loan, but instead of charging interest gets a pledge from Antonio that should the merchant fail to repay the debt, the lender gets to cut a pound of flesh from the man’s body. Disaster strikes Antonio, resulting in a climactic trial where Shylock, after a lifetime of officially sanctioned humiliation, rejects pleas for mercy and offers of repayment from others, insisting on fulfilling the terms of the contract to the letter under Venetian law.

"The Merchant of Venice" at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Directed by Robert Cuccioli. Pictured left to right: Melissa Miller as Portia and Rachel Towne as Nerissa. Photo by Jerry Dalia.
“The Merchant of Venice” at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Directed by Robert Cuccioli. Pictured left to right: Melissa Miller as Portia and Rachel Towne as Nerissa. Photo by Jerry Dalia.

Director Robert Cuccioli has chosen to set the play in 1910. While this has freed the imaginations of the design team (Brian Ruggaber’s airy bi-level set; Candida Nichols’ period-evocative costumes; Michael Giannitti’s delicate lighting; and Käri B. Berntson’s subtle sounds), it did not seem to add anything to the audience’s understanding of the play. Cuccioli, however, does get his cast to give professional, if not uniformly inspired, performances.

From the cast, I would note the work done by Melissa Miller as Portia, especially in the courtroom scene (from which comes the famous “quality of mercy” speech); Brett Harris’ Antonio, which is played with an understated homoerotic tone, especially in several scenes with John Keabler’s Bassanio; and Andrew Weems, whose Shylock is a perfect portrait from beginning to end. Finally, at the very end of the play, there is Amaia Arana as Jessica, Shylock’s daughter; her facial expressions are a silent study in effectively conveying the mixed emotions running through her character, moving from confusion to disbelief to shock as she realizes the consequences of her actions and the horror that her new Christian friends are rejoicing at this.

"The Merchant of Venice" at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ is directed by Robert Cuccioli. Pictured are John Keabler as Bassanio and Ian Gould as Gratiano. Photo by Jerry Dalia.
“The Merchant of Venice” at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ is directed by Robert Cuccioli. Pictured are John Keabler as Bassanio and Ian Gould as Gratiano. Photo by Jerry Dalia.

If you are expecting a lighthearted look at love’s foolishness, or a comic take on the battle of the sexes, you will come away disappointed from The Merchant of Venice. If, however, you are willing to take up Shakespeare’s challenging play about the behavior of those inside society toward those outside of it, you will come away with much to think about long after the cast has taken its bows. The Merchant of Venice deserves to be seen. I urge you to do so.

The Merchant of Venice is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of the Drew University in Madison through June 4, 2017. For tickets and information, visit www.shakespearenj.org.