The Merchant of Venice
Presented by William & Mary Theatre at Phi Beta Kappa Hall, Williamsburg, Virginia. November 18-21, 2004. Directed by Richard Palmer. Assistant director Christopher Boyd. Scenic design by Michael Mehler. Costume design by Patricia M. Wesp. Light design by Steve Holliday. Sound design by Brad Giroux. With Danny Ramish (Antonio), Rachel Manteuffel (Portia), Nolan Bennet (Shylock), Russel Fenton (Bassanio), Mary Davenport (Nerissa), Nic Rookwood (Launcelot), Mat Jarvis (Old Gobbo), Jennifer Isaacson (Jessica), Tristan Lejeune (Lorenzo), Brian Zane (Solanio), Katie Earnest (Solania), Kyle Ferguson (Gratiano), Malcolm Perry (Morocco), and others.
A few minutes into the Prince of Morocco's first casket scene, I had the nearly uncontrollable urge to shout at the stage "Choose the lead casket! The lead! Choose the lead!" I was bored, yes, but not with the production itself, or even this scene. The actor playing Morocco was disciplined and focused, managing to make the prince funny without breaking a histrionic sweat. Portia was also, here as throughout, very good. I was bored with, and somewhat baffled by, the story of the merchant of Venice, and his love-besotted friend, and that friend's beloved. Why, I wondered, do we keep telling ourselves (or showing ourselves) this story of three caskets, true love, and the falseness of appearances? Why do we keep insisting that Merchant is not anti-Semitic, or that it is but it can teach us how to avoid "repeating history," or that it is "so much more" than a play about Jews and Christians--that, for example, it is about love and loyalty and friendship, about feminine ingenuity and masculine constancy and how lead and flesh are worth more than gold. If a theater company really believes that we as a culture are interested in complex manifestations of anti-Semitism and the relationship between anti-Semitism and romantic comedy, why does that theater company not stage a play about these things written by a living member of our culture? How do we manage to deceive ourselves, repeatedly, into believing that the representation of the story of the merchant of Venice on stage is acting--a form of communication--rather than mere mimicry--a form of repetition? During the moment of my temptation in the first casket scene, the story of Antonio and Bassanio and Portia and Shylock seemed to me as a great cage, not unlike the enormous arched facades that framed the stage on three sides: an over-determined, overbearing structure, whose extremely limited dimensions the actors were forced to pace for lack of anything better to do. Idealistically I imagined what beneficial effects might follow from my heckling--how Morocco might, to the extreme surprise and consternation of his fellow actors--decide to choose the lead casket, how Portia might be forced to accept a husband of his complexion, how the actors back-stage, both infuriated and energized, might scramble to construct the play's narrative--and might even succeed, triumphantly, in cobbling together something truly strange and wonderful that transcended the self-congratulatory broadmindedness which is inevitably a part of every modern production of Merchant, professional, amateur, or student.
Alas, I am not quite courageous enough to be anything more than a heckler at heart. The production plodded along on-course. Shylock and Bassanio and Portia and Gratiano were well-acted. That is, they were relaxed and fluent, and made intelligent, intelligible choices that made the action seem spontaneous if not new. But again I wonder if perhaps what happens in any production of Merchant of Venice can ever really be called "acting." Certainly the students were pretending to be people they were not, and certainly they made a bona fide effort to represent passions they did not feel. Often they were quite successful in these endeavors--as when, for example, at the end of the play the three couples rushed off stage to have sex and Antonio, ever good-natured but obviously at a loss, sat down on a bench stage-left, casting a rather sheepish sidelong glance at the audience. …