Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 9, 2016

The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA
through August 21, 2016
by Joan Mento

On a bare stage in the round, Shakespeare & Company’s “The Merchant of Venice” starts with a bang not a whimper. Masked players enact stylized movements that rapidly transform to gyrating hip-hop. The limited set pieces are creatively unitized, and costumes as well as actors interacting with the audience suggest Elizabethan stage practices.

Photo by John Dolan
In past productions, Shakespeare & Co. played comic episodes skillfully and hilariously funny. Yet, in this  “Merchant” the clowning seems forced and overextended. Few laughs accompany the Old Gobbo and son antics. Instead, it is the women’s subtle comic expressions in the casket scenes that delight and amuse the audience. A moment of sustained laughter erupts when the Prince of Aragon chooses his casket to reveal the message of “blinking idiot” and, instead of a mirror, holds up a picture of Donald Trump.

Venice, at Shakespeare’s time was a cultural and financial capitol, populated by various ethnic and religious groups. Yet, prejudice of the ruling class dominated. I believe that “Merchant’s” issues make it more of a “problem play.” The poignancy of Shylock’s plight proves too powerful. Sympathy lies with Jonathan Epstein’s lead character. The cruelty and violence toward him outweigh the infrequent redeeming quality of laughter. Despite the romantic comedy of the rings in the last scene, the audience is left with a stage image that reinforces the tragic dimensions. Juxtaposed to the merrymaking couples (except for Shylock’s daughter, now disillusioned in her mixed marriage) is the isolated Shylock, bereft of his kin, his money, and his religion as he is forced to endure a conversion to Christianity. In the end, he sings a mournful dirge echoing his impending death, not only literally as is written in his will, but also spiritually in his death as a Jew.

Congratulations to Tamara Hickey for her excellent portrayal of Portia and to Epstein’s outstanding Shylock.