Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009

Door Shakespeares's The Merchant of Venice

By Russ Bickerstaff
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STUFFY BACKGROUND CRITICISM

It’s a bit difficult to say anything about Shakespeare that hasn’t already been said. When a towering genius has received so much recognition as to actually come across as being over-rated, it’s a bit difficult to know what to say about the man . . . or any of his individual works, for that matter.

The Merchant of Venice is, relatively speaking, one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays. It fuses a couple of other stories together into a single script. The story of someone who fails to obtain a pound of flesh in payment for a debt has roots that go back to the far east a very, very long time ago. The script combines that with the tale of a man who gains the hand of a woman through choosing the right chest from a set of three goes back quite a ways as well. There’s at least one other major subplot here—a daughter who deliberately disobeys her father by running way with her lover. And that’s—well vague enough to be universal. There are also shades of The Servant of Two Masters and a few other things. All in all, not the most inspired work by the single most famous author in the history of the world . . . but entertaining enough to be performed a bit more than some of his more obscure plays . . .

And then there’s the whole question of anti-Semitism. The story in question involves a man who needs money to gain the hand of a woman in marriage, so he asks for money from the title character, who doesn’t have any, but manages to raise the requisite funds from a Jewish moneylender named Shylock. Shylock is upset with the way he and people of his faith have been treated by the likes of the title character, so he requests the rather unique forfeiture of a pound of flesh from the title character if the money hasn’t been paid back in time. Shylock is a bitter man and there is much talk amongst the rest of the characters that he is villainous . . . the implication in much of the dialogue delivering the general idea that he is villainous by virtue of the fact that he is Jewish.

Now—in his defense, Shakespeare was a product of his time—and in England at the time, Jewish people had been banished for a number of centuries. In 16th century England, Jewish people were a bit like Islamic fundamentalists are in modern day America. It would’ve been relatively easy to choose a Jewish person as a villain . . . and given how lazy and uninspired the plot feels (this is a personal opinion here . . .) there’s a good chance that Shakespeare was simply looking for an easy collection of things to put together into production while he searched for something more inspired.

That being said, there are a number of interesting bits of monologue on the part of Shylock that show him as being a downtrodden person who refuses to be a victim until he is forced into it again at the end of the play. There’s enough in here to show that Shakespeare saw the complexity of the character and was revealing it in the very thoughtful dialogue of the villain.

Modern productions could go in any direction here . . . as I recall, a recent American Players production played Shylock as a villain with no specific accent. The way James Ridge was playing him, he could’ve been from another planet. This was interesting but on the whole, not terribly inspired as I recall. Okay, maybe I’m being a bit harsh . . . but the point is that the character, the way Ridge played him, didn’t feel all that sympathetic. And the play could really be performed in a variety of different ways to a number of different effects. (Which is the kind of adaptability that has made Shakespeare’s work so popular over the years.) So how does Door Shakespeare handle it?

THE SHOW


On the tiny space in a clearing along the coast of the Door County Peninsula rests Bjorklunden. It’s a 425-Acre estate that was given to Lawrence University in the early ‘60’s. Nestled on the estate it’s a garden amphitheatre where Door Shakespeare performs. It’s a quaint little space that feels very much like an outdoor studio theatre. With folding chairs on risers facing a natural earthen floor “stage,” this is hardly the huge affair up the hill at the American Players Theatre. It’s a quaint little space with a budget that appears to have been spent almost entirely on the actors. Some half a dozen people in the cast are Equity actors. There’s a very polished, professional feel to the production woven directly into the performance itself.

The production attempts to ease into the touchy cultural prejudices of the script with a series of appropriately inappropriate jokes, which would be a good idea if it didn’t come across as being so rehearsed. Once things get under way, the production has a very smooth rhythm. Stephen J. O’Toole has gone for a very sympathetic performance as Shylock. There’s a kind of nobility in the actor’s performance bent a little bit with the bitterness over his treatment by the one seeking to borrow money from him. It’s a very charismatic performance of a very sophisticated character. The sympathetic portrayal of the character makes the rest of the character’s prejudices against him feel very dark indeed. And though we get a reasonably passionate pair of performances out of Sean Michael Dooley and Amy Ensign as the lovers Bassanio and Portia, respectively, their charm and the niceties of the romantic comedy are at odds with the tragic fate of a sympathetically-drawn Shylock.

The rest of the show is equally uneven. Portia’s search for the right suitor finds Sean Michael Dooley playing a series of wacky, clownish guys. Dooley plays them with a bracingly annoying degree of clownishness. The use of members of the audience to illustrate other Portia’s other suitors in a conversation between her and Nerissa is cute, but not altogether pleasant, but for all its flaws, the romantic end of the play comes together quite well with an ample amount of charm on the part of Amy Ensign.

One of the big standouts in the cast is Khris Lewin, who plays both Gratiano and Shylock’s servant Lancelot Gobbo. The Lewin is a captivating stage presence with excellent instincts for comedy that seem to be a bit to unruly here. Judging from his bio, the man has had plenty of professional stage experience, but he seems to have gotten a little out of control here .Things come across as being a bit more goofy than they should . . .and that might not be entirely his fault. A heavy wheeze could be heard in his voice—it was either a chest cold or the same allergies I was suffering from throughout the weekend in Door County. Either way, Lewin’s performance would’ve had to have been a bit out of whack due to decongestants, anti0histamenes and whatever else he needed to do what ended up being a very, very physical performance here. It was one of the more memorable performances in the ensemble.

Door Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice runs through August 16th at Bjorklunden in Baileys Harbor.

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