The Shakespeare Forum takes on one of William Shakespeare’s most political plays in their moving production of The Merchant of Venice which fully gets to grips with the play’s anti-Semitism, its violence and classism, the actors embodying their characters with presence, humor and a strong hold on the text.
While The Merchant of Venice is, in part, a comedy, its portrayal of Shylock as the villainous Jew blurs the line between humor and tragedy. The relationship between Antonio the merchant, the play’s title character, and Shylock is one rife with economic competition and a history of subordination, racism and hatred. It is no wonder that when Antonio asks Shylock for a loan, Shylock laughs and puts a prize on Antonio’s flesh if his bond is broken.
The motive for the wretched loan is Antonio’s love for his friend Bassanio (Bill Coyne), a man who seeks to woo and wed Portia, a rich and beautiful woman whom he’s in love with. To better Bassanio’s future, Antonio risks his life, his own fortune and his pride. While there are many different storylines in the text–Portia and her many suitors, Shylock and his daughter Jessica (Imani Jade Powers), Jessica and her lover Lorenzo (Zack Libersco), Lancelot and his father (John Smiley)–the cast manages to pull all the seemingly disparate stories together into a cohesive performance. The rendering of all these characters makes it clear that Shakespeare is concerned with more than love and violence; his band of poor and rich characters bring forth notions of class, labor, preconceptions about poverty and race, and Venetian society’s expectations.
Dominic Comperatore is excellent as the prideful, honorable Antonio. By far the most accomplished actor of the cast, Comperatore exudes confidence, bravery and a kind of understanding of Shylock that goes beyond a simple reading of his character in the text, who could have been performed with pure sarcasm and bravado. Comparatore’s loving and compassionate performance complicates the relationship between the merchant and the Jew, complimenting Joseph Menino’s powerful depiction of Shylock. As the angry, vengeful and miserable Shylock, Menino is outstanding. His powerful delivery of his character’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech brings out the pain of racism, the unfairness of inequality and the passion of a dignified man who works hard in the face of mocking adversity. Rather than feel like Shylock is the villain of the story (which, admittedly is a sign of modern sentiments on racism), Menino’s performance depicts Shylock as the unwilling victim, fighting forces all around him including his daughter.
Francis Mateo, who plays both Lancelot Gobbo and the Prince of Morroco, gives another stellar performance.. Mateo plays with the audience with his use of comedy, exaggerated movements and wailing (Lancelot is somewhat of a clown after all). He often stops to make sure the audience gets a joke or pun, landing his comedic timing with panache and incredible effect. His riveting performance is a relief from the tragic scenes between Shylock and any of the other characters, and his understanding of the text is to such effect that he, more than any other cast member, can manipulate it by adding modern language at times and truly drawing the audience into Shakespeare’s wordplay.
Hannah Rose Goalstone and Sarah Hankins are wonderful as the wise Portia and her humorous, loyal handmaiden Nerissa, but their costumes are confusing and unappealing. While all the men in the cast (outside of Shylock, who wears period clothing and a Tzizit) wear somewhat modern, casual clothing Goalstone and Hankins are clad in prom-like dresses. They have feathers in their hair and silver, rhinestone headpieces. The lack of congruity in all the costumes unfortunately hurts the production, distracting the audience from the strong performances of the actors.
The Shakespeare Forum performs the play with grace and a knowingness, engaging with the text while portraying Shylock in a compassionate light and illustrating how this 400 year old play is still very relevant today.