Bard Brawl co-captain Eric Jean and I are asked often one question: did Shakespeare really write all those plays?
Ok maybe two questions.
What’s your favourite play?
Neither of us have one “favourite,” but we both say almost always Othello for tragedy and Merchant of Venice for comedy, and then add a couple more, but none as much as those two.
This meant I did not want to miss and was pumped to check out Bard on the Beach‘s production of the Merchant knowing BOB always pulls out at least one or two truly quality productions per season.
I saw BOB’s production of Merchant in 2003, which was very good.
How is the 2017 production?
Go see it.
Director Nigel Shawn Williams nailed it, and I walked away thinking, ‘was that the best Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen?”
Merchant is one of the most important plays, and particularly vital in the current xenophobic culture drowning in intolerance of the other and an obsession with sticking to one’s own. Williams’ modern day Italy style replete with drunk, loud hipster douchebags completely self-involved cackling at others’ misfortunes and gobbling up their misogyny and racism like a gaggle of entitled rich kids in a boarding school is completely appropriate and completely successful.
Edward Foy as Antonio gets the plays first lines:
“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
but how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
and such a want wit sadness makes of me,
that I have much ado to know myself,” I,i
Every production I’ve seen (including BOB’s 2003 one) sets Antonio as melancholy, thoughtful and tortured, but Williams does not.
Antonio is an asshole here.
This choice, to play Antonio thus, is the first of many excellent choices in a great production.
Short break for a plot rundown:
Antonio is sad, loans his friend Bassanio (Charlie Gallant) money to woo a pretty orphan named Portia (Olivia Hunt). Antonio doesn’t have the money on him so he borrows it from the Jew Shylock (Warren Kimmel), who says, ‘sure man. You can have it, and if you forfeit the bond I won’t even ask for the money, just a pound of your flesh.’ Antonio says sure, loses all his money, and…. Well, go see the play.
Kimmel steals the show. As Shylock, he is stoic and honourable and powerful, while also being tragic and sympathetic and vulnerable. He chews up ever scene with grace and understated rage.
The audience is struck silent when Gratiano (Kamyar Pazandeh) spits in his face.
The dichotomy between the douches and Shylock is incredible and unnerving to watch. There are few moments of comedy in this “comedy,” and more a growing rage at a dominant class of people stomping on those of an other group.
Shakespeare plays often mirror the current climates, as seen in this Merchant or Public Theater’s Donald Trump style Julius Caesar in Central Park. It’s one reason the bard endures. Count on Othello and King Lear productions popping up very soon.
Then there is the “love story” in Merchant.
Thank you, thank you, thank you Williams for recognizing what a sick and twisted world it is that produces a situation where a Portia’s status, money, house, and identity will be taken from her because of a test her father concocted.
Portia is stuck. She must marry whichever suitor chooses the right casement, which comes with a riddle. Generally, this is where directors go for comedy. The arrogant Morocco, the crazy Aragon often blast onto the stage and make everyone laugh at their pomposity.
Not this time.
The suitor scenes are just uncomfortable and the discomfort is even greater when Bassiano (on the short list for all time sleaze bag characters of Shakespeare) guesses right.
Consider this: Bassiano only gets to woo Portia because Antonio lent him money. Antonio loses said money and Bassiano runs to help his one true love. The case is lost when Portia (in disguise) shows up to bail him out with her money that Bassiano offers back to her and then he gives her the ring she told him not to.
These people are idiots, and the coupling up at the end is far from a happy ending. Williams pushes this particularly with Jessica (Carmelo Sison) and Lorenzo (Chirag Naik), which is particularly apt.
Lorenzo’s seduction of Jessica causes her to lose her identity and people for a complete zero, and it’s is hard to watch her killer line – “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” – is powerful and tragic, and beautifully foreshadowed by Shylock singing from his room.
Speaking of Shylock. Williams did well to cast Solaria (Adele Noronha) and Solania (Kate Besworth) as female, and Kimmel nails the most famous speech:
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” III,i
You just gotta see it.
A couple other notes: this play shows how to act in slow motion. The video projections are unnecessary (the only small complaint I had). The sound is great, and the set is solid.
Don’t let the label “comedy” fool you. This play isn’t funny. In a modern context it’s a tragedy on three fronts.
It’s a tragedy of the outsider. It’s a tragedy of feminism, and it’s a tragedy of law. Those with power, Shylock, Portia and the law of Venice, are by the end torn apart. Those with arrogance win.
Williams somehow manages to get all three messages through. Well done.
Tragedy. Tragedy. Tragedy.
I loved this performance, and for those in BC who want to see a modern, stylish and near-perfect rendition of one of the Bard’s finest plays, do yourself a favour. There’s not much time left.
It ends September 16.