Friday, September 28, 2018

At stake in Indy Bard Fest's 'Merchant of Venice': A pound of flesh, boatloads of treasure, fungible spirit

"The Merchant of Venice" is a problematic play primarily because of the anti-Semitism so prominent in it. But its difficulties go beyond that important quality. Indy Bard Fest opened a production of Shakespeare's play Thursday night at Indy Fringe Theatre under the direction of Doug Powers.
Shylock readies the knife to exact his revenge.

In director's notes, Powers addresses the complicated nature of what is ostensibly a comedy – which means not only funny lines, of course, but also that the love relationships overcome hurdles and are solid by the end. Powers has added a complication that undercuts the comedy — which is already undercut by the figure of Shylock the moneylender and the bigotry he occasions and responds to. That complication, supported somewhat by the text, is the same-sex attraction of Antonio, the merchant of the title, and his financially embarrassed friend Bassanio.

In the first scene for Antonio and Bassanio alone, the actors Ryan Ruckman and Zach Taylor throw themselves explicitly into the mutual passion of the otherwise socially upright Venetian gentlemen. There is no ambiguity here, and we presume that Bassanio's course toward marriage with the nubile Portia makes him authentically bisexual, besides being social-climbing. I'm still trying to  understand what this emphasis, perhaps not otherwise explainable as a mere bromance, contributes to the play. I acknowledge that it helps to underline Antonio's self-declared sadness, as well as adding poignancy to his isolation at the end. But it veils what seems to me Antonio's representative "Venetianness" — materialism and a "not-our-kind-dear" attitude toward outsiders.

Emily Bohn as Portia has her day in court.
Apart from that, the overall vigor and clarity of the portrayals — particularly Ryan Reddick as Shylock and Emily Bohn as Portia — lay bare the basic problems of the play and effect stageworthy solutions, for the most part. Budget constraints may have prevented the show from looking richer, but here's the rub: To me, Shakespeare's Venice is all about wealth and exclusiveness. Status depends upon honoring both values loyally, even though there is plenty of discontent threaded throughout the characters. The production could use more glitz.

Yet this raises a problem that goes beyond anything this production is responsible for. While the main
characters invite us to see them as multifaceted, I don't find much humanity in them. Portia may be held up as a conspicuous exception, and she must be a delight to play. Bohn is always the focus in every moment Portia is onstage. Constrained by her late father's strictures on how she should choose a husband, Portia is admirably restive and wants to assert herself. But she's mainly a cleverer version of the Venetian ideal: Hold close to your prejudices and focus your attention on how to satisfy your every want, mainly the material ones. Her famous courtroom appeal to the value of mercy is manipulative, of course.

The complicated plot is strung upon three overlaid stories of folktale-like simplicity: the bond that Shylock insists upon literally (the famous pound of flesh for Antonio's failure to repay an interest-free loan);  the stipulated choice among three metal caskets offered to Portia's many suitors; and the solemnized gift of rings with their testing of the faithfulness of Portia's Bassanio and her maid Nerissa's Gratiano. These are all presented well in this production (Duwan Watson Jr. was superior vocally and in facial expressiveness as the Prince of Morocco). My one quibble is the censoring of Shakespeare's line for Portia after she dismisses the Moorish prince: "Let all of his complexion choose me so." I can't fathom why "discernment" was substituted for "complexion" in a play seething with bias. Clearly Shakespeare's Portia is relieved she won't have to marry a black man.

Reddick's Shylock as I viewed him adheres to my conviction, following Harold Bloom, that the fierce usurer and offended father of the absconding Jessica is a comic villain. The character is endlessly interesting, but mainly because the Bard makes such excellent work out of a figure clearly designed to resonate with the conventional anti-Semitism of his time. What makes many people justifiably nervous is that Shylock has resonated with anti-Semites ever since. Reddick never strayed into sentimentalizing the Jew. His Shylock is amusing in his singlemindedness, which may have ample justification but comically does him in. It's uncomfortable to join the gabby Gratiano in his taunting after Shylock gets his courtroom comeuppance, but I'm willing to go there.

I'm left with one further puzzlement: In the last act, the intensity of the spat between the eloping couple — Lorenzo and Jessica (Lexy Weixel's shrewish ranting was impressive) — seemed overdone, and obscured some of the play's best, most expansive poetry. There must be a reason for it that lies somewhere within the difference between Doug Powers' understanding of "The Merchant of Venice" and mine. So be it: The artistic vision has priority over the critical response, and deserves to have the attention and respect of audiences at the remaining six performances. Let Bard Fest's public decide. The show is good enough that the opportunity to do so is worth it.

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