The Merchant of Venice

As syrup is often added to bitter medicine to make its ingestion more palatable, so the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of The Merchant of Venice mines the playwright's profuse comedic elements to counter the difficult moral questions that underlie this most controversial of all Shakespearean dramas.

Yet, the questions are no easier to answer for it. For over four hundred years a cloud of anti-Semitic behavior on the part of the Christians in this work has overshadowed every performance. The illustration of such behavior, however, does not mean it is condoned, by either the playwright or those who choose to perform it. As Anthony Powell's direction clearly indicates, there is complicity in the prejudicing and stereotyping by all the stakeholders in this tragicomedy.

Photo of Bill Christ as Antonio
Bill Christ as Antonio
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Antonio, the merchant of the play's title, has agreed to secure a bond for his friend Bassanio, to help him invest in a mercantile venture. Together, they seek their 3,000 ducats from Shylock, a Jew and moneylender.

Photo of John Hutton as Shylock
John Hutton as Shylock
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Shylock, for his part, is resentful toward Antonio and his friends who regularly harangue him with racist epithets and spit upon him in the street, yet he plays into their bigotry. He is consumed by his wealth, and gives no slack in his interest rates. Each side makes their contempt clear, and when the dust settles after negotiations, Shylock agrees to loan the money without interest, on the condition that forfeiture of the bond grants him the right to exact a pound of flesh from Antonio's heart.

Such lending practices, minus the dramatic hyperbole of "a pound of flesh," were common in Venice at the time: Pre-Reformation Christianity had not yet fully reconciled usury (and its attendant anti-Christian tenets of self-interest and the profit motive) into its cosmology, and the Jews -- legal aliens in Christian Venice, consigned to a ghetto, and prohibited from owning property -- took up this occupation as a means of security and survival. Indeed, the presumed playwright himself, Edward de Vere, during his sojourn to Venice, had borrowed 3,000 against the return of his ships from a Michael Lok, and passages from his correspondence concerning this woeful transaction are mirrored in the play's correspondence.

Interwoven with this tragic social commentary on Judeo-Christian enmity is a romantic comedy involving three pairs of lovers: Bassanio is in love with Portia, a wealthy and well-educated heiress; Gratiano, Bassanio's friend, is wooing Nerissa, Portia's waiting-gentlewoman; and Lorenzo, another friend of Bassanio is courting Jessica, Shylock's daughter.

Two of these lighthearted relationships figure prominently in the play's execution of injustice. In the first instance, because of her sex, Portia is forced to disguise herself as a young doctor of law in order to save her betrothed's good friend, Antonio, from certain death. In one of the most famous Shakespearean monologues ("The quality of mercy is not strained "), she attempts to convince Shylock to relent, tear up the bond, and accept three times what he is owed. In the second instance, because of their disparate religions and the marriage-property laws of Venice, Lorenzo and Jessica are compelled to conduct their courtship surreptitiously and steal jewelry and gold coinage from Shylock.

It is through this latter love-relationship, between a Christian and a Jew, that the tragic and comic motifs of the play truly intersect and by which the genre of the play is defined. In a master stroke, director Powell elegantly employs Jessica to underscore this point at the end of the play. This sublime choice provides a fitting, final punctuation to Powell's phenomenal attention to detail throughout the production.

John Hutton draws a fully-realized portrait of Shylock, eliciting both the sympathy and disdain of the audience. His rendering of "Hath not a Jew eyes? " provides Shylock with a natural, learned, and tempered response to the taunts of Antonio's employees; yet, with his self-righteous intractability to Portia's courtroom pleas, he convincingly recasts his character in the same revenge-laden state as his enemies.

Photo of January LaVoy as Portia and Don Burroughs as Bassanio
January LaVoy as Portia and
Don Burroughs as Bassanio
Photo: Terry Shapiro
January LaVoy is a sweet and intelligent Portia, equally at home expressing girlish anxiety over the difficult marriage process dictated by her father's will or cleverly holding her own with her bizarre, overbearing suitors. In the courtroom, her immortal speech is heart-felt and transcendentally lucid. Yet like her "Christian brethren," she is able to turn, without the least notice, and ignore her own importuning for mercy -- prescribing a most cruel sentence for Shylock, stripping him of his fortune, and forcing his conversion to a faith his own people consider blasphemous.

Bill Christ's Antonio is stoic and commanding. Never wavering from his oath, he garners our respect, though (rightfully) not our sympathy, tolerant as he is of his own and his friends' anti-Semitism. This places Antonio in subtle, but substantive moral contrast to Shylock: Shylock holds to the letter of the law in court, much as Antonio stands on his "honor"; however, Shylock is aware of the similarities of their hypocrisy, that of mixing religion and hate, as he points out to Antonio's friends, while Antonio never admits to his prejudices, satisfied that they are legally sanctioned.

In addition to the principals, the ensemble provides a host of stellar performances. Mark Rubald's Gobbo is Elizabethan physical comedy at its best; Rodney Lizcano steals his scene as The Prince of Arragon; David Ivers' Gratiano is a perfect send-up from sidekick heaven; the venerable Tony Church lends imperious gravity to the Doge of Venice; and there is much more.

Stylistically set amongst canals and gondolas, and presented in striking costumes, this sparkling production of the time-tested The Merchant of Venice -- like its contemporary pop-culture counterparts, the bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, and box-office hit, The Passion of the Christ -- has much to say about the misguided behaviors derived from imagined events surrounding the crucifixion, and about more eternal truths as well, such as love and compassion.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of The Merchant of Venice runs through April 24th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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