William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice mixes romantic comedy with tense, emotional cruelty, prompting laughter in an audience as well as dismay at the outrageous usage that a Jewish moneylender, Shylock (Alan Blumenfeld in a terrific performance), must endure. It is difficult to watch the abuse that he must endure at the hands of Christian men who snarl out the word “Jew” as they manhandle him, an action that recurs over and over again throughout the play. This brutality can have a profound effect on audience members. In 1970, I was onstage as a young supernumerary in Ellis Rabb’s modern dress production of the play at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco when two audience members, a man and woman, mortally offended by the abuse Shylock suffers in the trial scene, erupted with “What a fucking farce this is! Shame! Shame!” and fled the theatre. The next day, it was reported in the Chronicle that the woman assaulted Mr. Rabb in the lobby, punching him in the face, breaking his glasses, and driving a shard into his eye. It stopped the action cold.
For those who don’t know the play, Bassanio (Colin Simon) begs friend and kinsman, Antonio (Franc Ross), a successful merchant of Venice, to loan him 3,000 ducats so he can woo in appropriate style the lovely, wealthy heiress, Portia (the truly lovely Willow Geer). Antonio is cash poor, but agrees to take out a loan from Shylock, a man he has many times berated and abused. In a tense uncomfortable scene loaded with invectives, Shylock ultimately agrees to loan the money without interest, but with the stipulation that if it is not paid back on time, Shylock may take “an equal pound of [Antonio’s] fair flesh…to be cut off and taken” in whatever part of his body he likes; an unusual arrangement, to say the least.
In the famous casket scenes, any suitor determined to win Portia’s hand must choose the casket containing the likeness of Portia. With great ceremony gold, silver and lead caskets are brought out. The Prince of Morrocco (Max Lawrence in a sensational, physical performance) is the first to choose, followed by The Prince of Arragon (Nima Jafari) who enters clicking a castanet, both of whom fail to choose correctly. Bassanio, of course, gets it right, and love is on.
There are two more romantic subplots: Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Maia Luer), elopes with Lorenzo (Dane Oliver), stealing much of her father’s wealth in gold and jewels, and Portia’s waiting-gentlewoman, wise Nerissa (Susan Angelo) falls for Lorenzo’s older, cut-up companion, Gratiano (Tim Halligan). And the play is well served by the great performance of Melora Marshall as the servant-clown Lancelot Gobbo, whose wry spontaneity is as hilarious as it is infectious. It is a classic piece of work, commedia at its finest.
The trial scene is the dramatic payoff. Antonio is broke and can’t meet his obligation to Shylock and so must pay the bond with his pound of flesh cut from the place “nearest his heart.” The law is the law and Shylock, in his vengeful rigidity, spurns the offer of twice, thrice, or even ten times the amount of money. He will have his bond in vengeance for all the years of insults he has endured, and for his daughter’s betrayal in running off with a Christian boy, robbing him to boot. In this production, the scene is riveting, as Portia, disguised in male attire as a learned judge, turns the tables on Shylock, leaving him a sad and pitiable character. Shylock is hard and villainous, resentful and rigid. He deserves his fate, and yet the vicious cruelty of overwhelming Christian distain drives reason, compassion, and yes, mercy, right out of him. And this is the tragedy of the play, standing in stark contrast to the light-hearted romanticism played out in the rest of the scenes.
Theatricum Botanicum’s production of The Merchant of Venice, under the wise direction of Ellen Geer, boasts sumptuous costumes by Beth Glasner, with lighting design by Zachary Moore, props by Sydney Russell, and excellent sound and music design by Marshall McDaniel. The show runs in rotating rep with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Animal Farm, Other Desert Cities, and Trouble in Mind through October 1.