The Merchant of Venice
For its annual Shakespeare Under the Stars production, First Folio Theatre tackles "The Merchant of Venice," which director Alison Vesely describes as "one of Shakespeare’s problem plays." The quote goes beyond the play’s defiance of simple classification, and the performances Vesely draws from her cast make it clear she thought long and hard about how to tackle ugly themes -- themes unfortunately still relevant after 400 years -- embedded in sparkling comedy. The result is a no-apologies approach to the text that largely succeeds.
"Merchant" presents practical as well as thematic challenges, burdened as it is with two distinct locations, a middle-heavy act structure and a C romantic subplot that is important, but not always compelling.
Angela Weber Miller’s scenic design helps to overcome most of these would-be issues. Miller’s set uses Ann Davis’s mural of Venice, a series of pocket-door exits, and strategic staircases to balance the necessary scale and a small, but busy cast.
Credit is also due to the ensemble for maintaining the pace despite a large number of scene changes and set re-dressings. Rachel Lambert’s costume design, with its color-coordinated romantic couples and minor alterations to main pieces to convey shifts in time and place, also keeps things brisk and coherent.
In the cast, the most unqualified, crucial success is Michael Goldberg’s Shylock. Goldberg does not shy away from Shylock’s rage. The result is a stark portrait of a man whose common, innate flaws are fed by unrelenting, systemic racism until they choke out everything good in him. Goldberg’s performance, of course, reaches its peak in Act III, where his indignant rage in the famous "I am a Jew" speech is rivaled by the sincere anguish he conveys over the loss of his daughter in the scene with Tubal.
In both cases, Goldberg’s portrayal is made even more effective by the fact that Vesely’s direction pulls no punches with other characters’ anti-Semitism. Shylock’s fury and his anguish are all the more moving because they come on the heels of the black-hearted mockery of Salario and Solanio (well played by Gary F. Barth and Michael Mercier, respectively).
Vesely’s unflinching direction also serves Michael Joseph Mitchell well as Anthonio. Mitchell plays the class, race and gender privilege straight and teases out some interesting notes of the swaggering, compulsive gambler in Anthonio -- a choice that’s particularly resonant in the Occupy Era. Also to Mitchell’s credit is the fact that even seeing the ugliness of Anthonio’s character and the world through which he moves so easily, the audience still feels empathy for him in the face of Shylock’s brutality.
Much of that empathy rests on the shoulders of Kevin McKillip’s Bassanio. However inadequate an apology it may be for the characters’ darker elements, McKillip conveys Bassanio’s warmth, affection, and respect for Anthonio so convincingly that we can’t help but believe Anthonio has earned it. Likewise, Bassanio’s naked terror in the courtroom scenes keeps the audience invested in the judgment, when it would be all too easy feel well rid of every last character.
McKillip is equally skilled as the romantic hero opposite Melanie Keller’s Portia. Keller’s performance is more uneven than that of her fellow leads. Her Portia is a bit white knuckled and intense from the first moment, and the humor often falls flat.
Complicating this is the fact that the two suitors that we see mostly (the Prince of Morroco, played by Stephan Collins-Stepney, and the Prince of Arragon, played by Lane Flores) are played for broad humor. Both actors are capable, and the audience (including me) howled, but the scenes come off as tone deaf to the racism, which is surprising given the deft work throughout the rest of the production.
When Keller is "on," she is very good indeed. And fortunately, she excels in the courtroom scenes. It’s also here that the subtler treatment of gender themes shines through in the lovely job that Keller does not only with the "Quality of mercy" speech, but also managing the melodramatic elements throughout.
In the supporting cast, Hayley L. Rice relieves some of Keller’s shakier moments with a good grasp of her comedic responsibilities as Nerissa and one half of the B romantic subplot. Kris Reilly is equal parts lovable and slap-able as Gratiano, just as Gratiano should be. Luke Daigle and Cassidy Shea Stirtz both have their moments as Lorenzo and Jessica, but the characters ultimately feel like a drag on the show’s pace.
Vesely gives the final moment to Jessica: As Antonio exits the stage, he looks up to see her on the balcony, covering her hair as she bows her head in front of a single candle. The implication that Shylock’s daughter has not, in fact, renounced her faith, but instead decided to "pass" as Christian is an intriguing one (and one that paves the way for First Folio’s staged readings of Maurice Schwartz’s "Shylock and His Daughter," which the cast performs on four Thursdays later in the summer), but it’s problematically unsupported by Shakespeare’s original and so brief a moment that I’m not sure it works.
"The Merchant of Venice " plays through August 19 at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st St. & Rt 83, in Oak Brook. For tickets call 630-986-8067 or visit http://www.firstfolio.org.