Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a profoundly troubling play. Watching it at any time reminds you of the scourge of anti-Semitism that has beset the world for centuries. Invictus Theatre sets it in 1938 Italy and escalates the anti-Semitic invective and activity. Now on stage at the Pride Arts Center’s Buena stage, Charles Askenaizer’s direction results in a smoothly performed production of what is considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays—and it may make you squirm in your seat as you’re sitting very close to the action.
One question about producing The Merchant is how the character of Shylock is portrayed. Is he a comic villain as Shakespeare apparently intended and as the late Harold Bloom described? Is he a tragic character, bathed in pathos, as he is usually played? Bloom categorizes The Merchant of Venice as one of Shakespeare’s great comedies, a view I found it hard to share after seeing this production.
Joseph Beal plays Shylock, an Italian Jew with a Yiddish accent. Beal does play him with a comic touch in the first act as he negotiates with the merchant Antonio (Chuck Munro) for a loan that, if defaulted, would be paid in the pound of flesh for which the play is known. But later, Shylock does become a tragic character and does justice to the humanistic “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech.
Martin Diaz-Valdez plays a strong and handsome Bassanio, who loves Portia (Julia Badger), the young woman whose late father decreed that she can only marry the suitor who chooses correctly from among three small caskets of gold, silver and lead. Each casket has a symbolism and a message inside. These scenes of visiting suitors and their choices add a light-hearted subplot to what is otherwise a tragic story. The other suitors are the Prince of Morocco (Brandon Boler) and the Prince of Arragon. Jack Morsovillo, who plays Arragon, is the evening’s busiest actor, playing original music on guitar throughout the play, and portraying a jailer as well as Shylock’s servant Launcelot. Launcelot decides to go over to the Christian side and work for Lorenzo (Travis Shanahan), lover of Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Courtney Feiler), who has left home and converted to Christianity.
You can see that everything is going against Shylock. And the elements added by the Invictus setting in 1938 Italy add to Shylock’s woes. Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, a follower of Adolf Hitler’s fascist ideology, passed a Manifesto of Race in 1938 that severely restricted the rights of Jews. Shylock is subjected to spitting, catcalls and harassment by soldiers and civilians alike. In one scene, a soldier grabs his kippah from his head and stomps it on the ground. And of course, the ultimate cruelty comes at the end, when Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity as part of his sentence by the court.
The court. It’s time to address that—one of the reasons that makes this a problem play (usually defined as a play that is dark, complex and ambiguous in tone). Portia, who is intelligent and witty, famously decides she must send off for letters and garments to establish her as Balthazar, a lawyer’s apprentice who is welcomed to the Duke’s court to decide the case of Shylock and the bond that Antonio forfeits. No, she has no legal training but decides the case based on hair-splitting technicalities she finds in the language of the bond. Thus she saves the life of Bassanio’s friend Antonio and sentences Shylock to lose half his money and his identity as a Jew. Plenty of material here for your after-show discussion.
She does that attired as a man, and of course, no one, not even her husband Bassanio, recognizes her. The case is the same for her maid Nerissa (charmingly played by Madeline Pell), who has married Bassanio’s sidekick Gratiano (Glenn Thompson). Gratiano also doesn’t recognize his bride as aide to the lawyer. Thus, Shakespeare pulls off his favorite identity switching as well as the trick of the ring gift by the two women.
The play is “profoundly anti-Semitic,” Bloom says. But was Shakespeare an anti-Semite, you may ask after sitting through this well-performed production? Not necessarily; he may have been reflecting on an issue of the time. Jews were banished from England in 1290. In Shakespeare’s London, there was the case of the Portuguese Jewish doctor, Roderigo Lopez, who was Queen Elizabeth’s physician. Dr. Lopez was accused and probably framed by the Earl of Essex; Lopez was charged with trying to poison the queen, was found guilty, hanged, drawn and quartered. The incident probably inspired The Merchant of Venice as well as a revival of Christopher Marlowe’s earlier play, The Jew of Malta.
Director Askenaizer has a strong cast and Badger and Pell are particularly appealing as Portia and Nerissa. Among the production crew, Satoe Schechner deserves special mention for the beautiful costumes designed for Portia and Nerissa. The men’s suits, tuxedos and uniforms are also well designed. Scenic design and props are by Kevin Rolfs, with lighting by Michael NJ Wright and sound design by Stefanie M. Senior.
The Merchant of Venice by Invictus Theatre Chicago continues through November 17 on the Buena stage at the Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets are $25 for performances Thursday-Monday. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission.
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, “The Merchant of Venice.” Riverhead Books, 1998.
Brandon Ambrosino, “Four Hundred Years Later, Scholars Still Debate Whether Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice Is Anti-Semitic,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2016.
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