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‘The Merchant of Venice’ at Greenbelt Arts Center

MerchantGREENBELT – The Rude Mechanicals troupe makes the bold choice of performing “The Merchant of Venice” at the Greenbelt Arts Center (through June 30). “The Merchant of Venice” is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s problematic plays, though these are among Shakespeare’s most interesting. Using a mostly female cast, this production embraces a spirit of experimentation. While not always entirely successful, the boldness of interpretation is interesting and at times even riveting.  

“The Merchant of Venice” is a frankly anti-Semitic tale of the vengeful, greedy Jewish moneylender Shylock and his attempt to kill his hated enemy, Antonio, the eponymous merchant of Venice, under a thin veneer of legality: If Antonio cannot pay back money Shylock has sent him to help his friend Bassanio woo the beautiful and virtuous Portia, Shylock as per contract will “extract a pound of flesh” from Antonio “in merry sport.”

In addition to the aforementioned anti-Semitic intolerance present in the play, any staging must also account for the fact that we see the characters in a vastly different light from that of Shakespeare and his contemporaries: while they saw Shylock as the villain and Antonio, Bassanio, and Portio as virtuous, today we view Shylock in large part as the victim, pleading for recognition of his basic humanity. Antonio, on the other hand, is filled with self-righteous anti-Jewish hatred, Bassanio is a fortune hunter and Portia needlessly tests the love of her suitor early in their marriage.    

Reflecting this stark moral backdrop, the staging of this production is bare and the costumes modest. Claudia Bach, the director, explains: “What if we moved aside the gold and silver caskets, the carnivals of Venice, the wealth of Belmont, and all other preconceptions about what this play is about and what their characters are like. Well, what does that leave us with?” Herein lies the Rude Mechanicals’ bold experiment. “The Merchant” can sometimes coast by using opulent settings to distract us from the uglier aspects of the play. How does the story hold up on its own, drawing only upon the power of Elizabethan English and Shakespearean couplets? This staging shows us that the romance of Venice, the charming side-tale of the suitors winning Portia’s hand via selection of gold, silver, and lead caskets, and, of course, the poetry are what make “The Merchant” more than an anti-Semitic diatribe. Indeed, this production shows us that the work struggles to make the bigoted and cruel appear tolerable.  

Yet the Rude Mechanicals’ production scores points in creative and unexpected ways. For example, a prologue is added (not in the Shakespeare text) which has the cast dance an excellently choreographed scene in which they point at Shylock, as if to single him out as The Outsider in Venetian society, to the unexpected musical background of a partly-instrumental version of “Pursuit of Happiness” by “alternative” musician Kid Cudi.

Another utterly riveting event occurs when Shylock and Antonio agree to the “bond” or contract. Indeed, every scene involving Shylock in this version is excellent, owing to the sympathetic portrayal of Shylock by Joshua Engel, in which Shylock comes across as hurt, angry, personable, and poignantly grieving for the loss of his daughter Jessica, who has eloped with a Christian suitor. Such scenes in the production are both painful and uplifting as Shylock’s humanity and faith are taunted and impugned and yet somehow given dignity.

In the program notes, the director expresses a wish to deemphasize the well-known casket scenes, yet this turns out to be one of the most striking pieces of the production. Instead of three chests of gold, silver and lead from which the suitors of Portia must choose – and instead of the bare set design which permeates the rest of the production - three actresses sit on chairs bent forward, revealing only their caps: one golden, one silver-colored and one lead-gray.  

Wes Dennis as Arragon gives an outstanding comic performance in the casket sub-plot. This is Dennis’ first acting credit, and we encourage him to take on more roles in the future. Allison McAllister is similarly excellent as Portia, both in the natural delivery of her lines and in her use of body language.

Given the problematic nature of its content, “Merchant of Venice” is often modified from the Shakespearean original. E.T.A. Hoffmann, writing in his “Merchant”-inspired tale “Choosing of the Bride,” drops the anti-Semitic plot and retains and reworks for fantasy purposes the suitors’ choice of gold, silver, and ivory (sic) caskets. More recently in the 1970’s, modern British playwright Arnold Wesker rewrote the play as “The Merchant,” making Shylock and Antonio friends who condemn intolerance and bigotry and enter into the “pound of flesh” compact to mock Venetian law and anti-Semitism.

The Rude Mechanicals production of “The Merchant of Venice,” like the other reworkings I have just mentioned, is extremely worthwhile in order to sort out our own complicated feelings about the play, in which we admire the romance and the poetry but are extremely troubled by this work in the Shakespeare repertoire which continues to promote anti-Semitic stereotypes which in any setting other than classic literature would be condemned roundly. While sometimes uncomfortable to watch, this staging may also help us to reflect on our own views, assumptions and perhaps prejudices in our encounters with social outsiders.

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