Performers Shine in Darkly Comic 'Merchant'

The Salt Lake Tribune

Cedar City — The famous words from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" elicited merry laughter at the shows opening performance Wednesday night at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. As they were spoken, the heavens were indeed dropping gentle rain — through the open roof of the Adams Shakespearean Theatre and onto the heads of the audience.

The rainstorm was brief, and so was the unrestrained laughter. "The Merchant of Venice," written by the Elizabethan conventions of light romantic comedy, has become a "problem play." The comeuppance of Shylock, the miserly Jew who bargains for a pound of the flesh of his enemy, was high comedy in Shakespeare's time; on the cusp of the 21st century, Shylock's downfall and forced conversion to Christianity are not matters for laughter.

Give the Elizabethans credit for being frank — and evenhanded — about their prejudices. Their hatred of France shows up frequently in Shakespeare's comic portrayals of Frenchmen who are silly fools. The Bard even has the temerity to portray Joan of Arc (accorded sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920) as immoral, cowardly and involved in the occult — as seen Tuesday night in "The War of the Roses." But in the aftermath of the Holocaust, anti-Semitic sentiment is not so easily put onstage, especially as a subject for comedy.

Unlike the one-dimensional character of Joan, Shylock is one of Shakespeare's most fascinating and complex creations At times he is a typical comic villain whose flaws are intended for laughter. When his daughter Jessica elopes with a Christian, Shylock bemoans the fortune she took with her more than her loss. In this version, there's an effort to play the scene otherwise, but the text wins out.

Shakespeare does take great pains to make Shylock disturbingly sympathetic, by continually pointing out the treatment he has endured at the hands of the Venetians. When Antonio (the titular Venetian merchant) comes to the moneylender, Shylock reminds him that Antonio has spat upon him, kicked him and publicly called him a dog.

Certainly Shylock was a disquieting figure, even in Shakespeares day.

Director Ina Marlowe's vision of "The Merchant of Venice" emphasizes the play's irony and religious conflict, making this version more thought-provoking — and less comical — than most.

The opulent set design by Bill Forrester incorporates large panels featuring Renaissance portraits of Christian saints. Their looming presence gives a sense of the power of the dominant religion and points out Shylock's position as an outsider in Venice. A wordless opening scene shows Muslim slaves being sold in the city streets, demonstrating the hypocrisy of the Venetian Christians.

The weight given to religious ironies makes for abrupt mood shifts as the play's love stories are launched. We meet the dashing Bassanio (Mark Murphey), who seeks a loan from his friend Antonio (Richard Thomson) so he can court a beautiful heiress, Portia. Antonio's funds are tied up in ships at sea, but his credit is good. Confident that at least one of his ships will soon bring riches to port, he accepts Shylock's unusual terms and secures a loan

Bassanio wins Portia, and his friend Gratiano wins Portia's friend Nerissa but complications quickly intervene. A letter from Venice announces that Antonio's ships are all lost, and that Shylock will have his bond — a pound of flesh. Antonio requests Bassanio's presence in the court that will carry out the law.

Portia (who has by this time proven herself as resourceful as she is beautiful) devises an escape for Antonio by dressing herself as a young male lawyer and cleverly turning the tables on Shylock in court. Kathleen McCall's strong portrayal of Portia brings out her intelligence, independence and desirability. In a season that also features the triumphant Wives of Windsor, feisty Joan of Arc and indomitable Queen Margaret, Portia is another proof that feminism is not a new idea. This season's Utah Shakespearean Festival might Well be dubbed the Year of the Woman.

This "Merchant of Venice" is the darkest of dark comedies, and Marlowe obviously intended it to be so. The comic pleasures are largely replaced with jumping-off points for intellectual and moral exploration. Nonetheless, the young lovers are engaging to watch, and Portia's successful schemes bring smiles.

Outstanding performances carry the evening, most notably Anthony De Fonte's tragic portrayal of Shylock. His imposing bearing and rich, expressive voice add much to his bitter characterization of a man who tries to stand up and exact revenge for the wrongs done to him and his people. One can only admire him. Corliss Preston gives an unusual portrayal of the errant daughter Jessica, making her, too, a sympathetic and tragic character.

Thomsen shades Antonio as a man who is at once likable and hypocritical. As the secondary romantic couple, Gwyn Fawcett and David Janovlak make Nerissa and Gratiano the most light-hearted people onstage.

Madeline Ann Kozlowski's costume design runs the gamut from rags for the slaves to the exaggerated richness of the clothing for Portia's arrogant (but unsuccessful) suitors. Music (by Christine Frezza) from Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions show careful research and supports the director's emphasis on religious conflicts and similarities.

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