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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Oy Vey What Happen to Shakespeare in Merchant of Venice

Also see Richard's reviews of Julia Migenes: Diva on the Verge and Talk Is Cheap ... Dreams Are Priceless

As my father would have said, "What happened to Shakespeare in this production shouldn’t happen to a dog." I have no qualms about directors trying their own interpretations of Shakespeare's plays. I have seen at least seven productions of The Merchant of Venice over the years and some have been done in modern dress, including the striking version with Sir Lawrence Olivier as Shylock in the National Theatre Production. The Royal Shakespeare Company did a superb production of the controversial play that took place during modern times in the financial center in the city of London. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival did an excellent version that took place during Victorian times and the location was the stock markets of London. 

I respect director Daniel Fish's "chutzpah" in presenting an overly high tech version of this contentious play.  At least fifty percent of the two-hour thirty-minute drama involves closed-circuit video on six large video screens on top of Andrew Lieberman's very thin set. The set is completely open with thin chrome poles as the frame of a house with the brown hills of Contra Costa County in the background. There are café tables with plastic chairs that look like Venice Beach, California. On the left side of the stage is a dumpster full of money that represents Shylock's home. We even see Shylock (David Chandler) "take a bath" using the money as water.

Fish uses pop songs in many of the scenes and we hear "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof as a group of men come to free Jessica (Elvy Post), Shylock's daughter who is in the dumpster so she can marry Salarino (T. Edward Webster). There are recordings of Madonna, Pet Shop Boys, Volksbühne and Talking Heads.  There are homosexual inferences, such as Antonio (Andrew Weens) having a sexual thing for Bassanio who needs his financial support to woo the wealthy Portia (Jenny Bacon).

There are some clever scenes, such as one with the famous three caskets that are in the possession of Portia.  The casts are gold, silver and lead. Nick Westrate plays all three suitors.  He first wears an outlandish black cat outfit that might have come from a Disney production, as the Prince of Morocco. His speech has a faux accent that sounds more like Indian with a spot of Jamaican thrown in for good measure. The suitor picks the wrong box, of course.  Westrate comes back as the Prince of Aragon, speaking with a green clothes pin on the top of his nose and speaking in a voice reminiscent of an alien in a Star Wars film. He also picks the wrong box. In each of these scenes there is a young man with a video camera projecting the casts on the six screens and also giving us terrible full face shots of Portia which is highly unnecessary.

Before picking the third box, the audience is treated to a scene from Michael Radford's movie Merchant of Venice, which shows Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio and Lynn Collins as Portia coming to pick one of the boxes. The cast are all on stage looking at various television sets displaying this scene.  Once the scene is over, Westrate, as Bassanio, picks the right box.

Shylock's trial with Portia playing Balthazar the lawyer in drag is excellent, with Jenny Bacon doing a first-rate performance of the speech, starting with "The quality of mercy is not strained."  This is Shakespeare at his best. Unfortunately, director Fish has decided to present the very important scene where Portia confronts Bassanio about his missing ring on video. It is poorly filmed in what looks like one of the Embassy Suites Hotels.  Even the sound is distorted.  The audience loses all intimacy with the live actors. The production ends with all of the couples doing simulated sex on what looks like a rubber raft, with poor Shylock still lonely and despondant.

Even the intermission is strange. To get the patrons back to their seat, David Chandler tells one of the longest shaggy dog stories on record.  It is all about a filthy speaking parrot. People wander back to their seats, not in on the first part of the story, and wonder what the hell is going on.

The video scenes are a major distraction to the audience who have come to the amphitheatre to see live theatre. They destroy the good work by the highly skilled actors on stage. It is very exasperating, moving your head up and down just to see faces close up.  As I heard one patron remark, "If I wanted to go to a drive in movie, I would have done so." The one good thing about the videos is that they will not be part of the sunny afternoon shows in the Bruns amphitheatre.  You will get good, live acting all the way.

The Merchant cast gives strong performances when allowed to perform.  David Chandler makes Shylock a very vengeful character; however, there is a spark of humanity about him. The word "Jew" is used a lot in this production, almost to excess.  I doubt if any can be pleased at his final humiliation since it is very hideous to see "the Jew" crawling around on the floor like a dog to appease his Christian masters. Danny Scheie, who has been so great in the two prior Cal Shakes productions as a comedian, turns serious for this role.  He delivers a piercing monologue as Shylock's servant which ends with a spit upon the man.

Jenny Bacon as Portia has little to do in the first act.  She is dressed like a Vogue magazine cover model with a Marilyn Monroe wig.  However, she comes into her own when she goes in drag to play the lawyer in the second act. Delia MacDougall is excellent as Nerissa, Portia's Gentlewoman.

Andrew Weems gives a gentle performance as Antonio, the merchant who lost all of his goods.  He seems to have a thing for the young good looking Bassanio played with boyish grace by Nick Westrate.   Nick's portrayal of the first two suitors to Portia is entertaining. Andy Murray as Graziano gives his usual vigorous acting approach to a character. T. Edward Webster as Salerio and Elvy Yost as Shylock's daughter give strong support to the production.

Costumes by Kaye Voyce are strictly Southern California outfits with some of the men wearing Bermuda shorts and floral patterned shirts.  David Chandler is dressed in a conservative black suit though out the production. Sound man Micaela Neus has given some of the actors hand held mikes to use at various times

The Merchant of Venice plays through September 3rd at the California Shakespeare Theatre, Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd, exit from Highway 24 between Berkeley and Orinda.   For tickets please call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.


Photo: Michael Sanville


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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