The Utah Shakespearean Festival’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” suffers a bit from poor casting in some roles, but benefits — ultimately far more greatly — from excellent casting in others.
The play has proved troublesome to many modern directors, as it was written at a time when anti-Semitism was the norm, and when forcing a Jew to convert to Christianity was seen as an act of grace and mercy, not the travesty we would see it as now.
How, then, to produce a play in which the main characters despise Jews openly, and in which the major reason the villain is considered a villain is that he’s Jewish?
Director Ina Marlowe has done wonders with Shakespeare’s words, making Shylock the Jew (Anthony De Fonte) the most sympathetic character. De Fonte’s performance captures perfectly the character’s situation: Hated by all the people of Venice because he is a rich Jew, he seeks revenge — a pound of flesh from Antonio (Richard Thomsen) — only when driven to it, his beloved daughter Jessica (Corliss Preston) whisked away by a Christian suitor.
Antonio, whose deep friendship with Bassanio (Mark Murphey) leads him to make the dreadful bargain with Shylock in behalf of his friend, doesn’t even try to apologize when his crimes against Shylock are listed. Shylock and his persecutors are both shown as imperfect, but the Christians are by far the worse perpetrators.
It may be a bit too politically correct, but it still serves as a viable interpretation of the play.
The best reason to watch the show, though, is Kathleen McCall as Portia. One is drawn to her immediately, as McCall portrays her like so many strong women we know in real life. She trash-talks her ridiculous suitors, swoons giddily over Bassanio and takes charge of a courtroom to save Antonio. The more one sees her, the more one likes everything about her.
Earning tremendous laughs in his one scene is Danforth Comins as the pompous Prince of Arragon, one of Portia’s suitors.
Where the production suffers is in the roles of Antonio and Bassanio. Their friendship should be deep and powerful, as it is that bond that sets off all the action in the play. But Thomsen, as Antonio, is at least 20 years older than Murphey’s Bassanio, and they never exhibit anything more than superficial affinity for one another. It is doubtful these men would even associate, let alone be I-would-die-for-you best friends.
Furthermore, while the idea of making Antonio somewhat flawed in order to make Shylock sympathetic is a reasonable one, Thomsen takes it too far. Line after line is spoken about what a great man Antonio is, but Thomsen fails to convey that. Indeed, when he stands in court about to lose his life, he is bitterly apathetic, not a dignified martyr.
If you’ve never seen the play before, the courtroom scene is as exciting and full of reversals as any modern-day legal thriller.
In fact, despite its casting flaws, this is a thought-provoking, richly layered play, as dramatic as it is comedic, and as troubling as it is enjoyable.
This was the last of the six plays I saw at the 2000 festival, and I was ready to stop seeing plays by that time, let me tell you. I'm glad the festival ended on a good note.