The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare
Featuring Scott Wentworth, Tom McCamus, Tyrell Crews, Michelle Giroux, Tyrone Savage, Sarah Farb, Sophia Walker, Jonathan Goad
It is not often a production comes along with a vision so complete - every nuance perfect, every character given a finished arc, every debatable point given a plausible finish - to either the bitter or sweet end - that the overall effect from a story-telling point of view is that of a masterpiece. It presents a dilemma for the reviewer as, when viewing any work of genius, it is difficult to know where to begin.
So let us begin with the person holding the brush, Antoni Cimolino, who decided to set his Merchant of Venice in 1936 Italy, within reachable memory for many parents and grandparents. It is just before Italy introduced Race Laws restricting Jews (and other races) who had, up until then, been especially integrated into Italian society, even leaders of the country. This is also right before the outbreak of World War II, when millions of Jews (and other races) were, at one extreme expelled from their homes and countries, and at the other extreme, rounded up by the millions and placed in concentration camps where most faced certain death. As such, the Holocaust casts a pall over this production in a very obvious and deliberate way, and Mr. Cimolino refuses to gloss over the anti-Semitism of that unstable era, using subtext and his actors' incredible talents to convey so much of what goes unsaid.
Mr. Cimolino also consulted with Dr. Darren Marks, the same man who helped the company of Fiddler on the Roof achieve the authenticity of a Russian shtetl, to similarly provide the company of Merchant with historical context. Dr. Marks notes that "What distinguishes the Italian story from what happened in other Nazi-controlled areas is the rapidity of ascent of intolerance, as few European Jewish populations had been so integrated into their national culture." Mr. Cimolino uses this, and his own belief that people are "taught to hate and fear", to examine a group of complex characters who all betray prejudices in one way or another.
For instance. The production opens in a crowded palazzo, people sipping espresso, three children playing soccer and Tubal, a Hassidic Jew, begins to play with them (they are Italians, after all). He is confronted by a group of "Black Shirts" - Fascists - who had been handing out pamphlets (note that Bassanio scoffs at the one he is pressed to take), but Tubal winks at the children and they merrily wave him goodbye.
Later, one of those children is wearing a Fascist uniform.
|Jonathan Goad as Gratiano, Anand Rajaram as Salerio, Tyrone Savage as Lorenzo|
and Steven Sutcliffe as Solanio. Photo by David Hou.
|Scott Wentworth as Shylock.|
Photo by David Hou.
This is best illustrated by Tubal, played by Robert King. As the only other Jew - the one who is obviously so - in the scene, one only needs to watch Tubal's reactions as his friend presses his case to see that Shylock's behaviour is sickening to more than the Christians and Fascists in the scene. He rolls his eyes at Shylock's first words ("Yeah, I've heard that before, he doesn't mean it though"), agrees with Portia's words about mercy, stares down Gratiano's first outburst, and finally confronts Shylock with a look of silent anger and disgust before leaving him to face his fate alone. That such a minor role can convey such importance in a production is completely satisfying for an audience member.
|Centre: Michelle Giroux as Portia. Photo by David Hou.|
|Sophia Walker (background) as Nerissa, Michelle Giroux as Portia|
and Scott Wentworth as Shylock. Photo by David Hou.
Congratulations, company of Merchant of Venice, for not doing nothing. If any production of this season deserves to travel to Broadway, it is yours.
The Merchant of Venice continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 18th.
*attributed to Edmund Burke
*attributed to Edmund Burke