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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Merchant of Venice
Southwest Shakespeare Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Glass Menagerie, The Sound of Music, and Veronica's Room

Mike Traylor and Clay Sanderson
Photo by Tom McCoy / Southwest Shakespeare Company
Originally classified as one of William Shakespeare's comedies, The Merchant of Venice proves a bit of a challenge for theatre companies due to the tragic and ugly anti-Semitic elements which are very much at odds with the many comedic moments in the script. While they aren't able to completely resolve the complex issues inherit in the play for modern audiences, Southwest Shakespeare Company's production has a talented cast and capable direction which includes an added final scene that helps emphasize the horrific outcome of the religious prejudice that several characters in the show possess.

The plot centers on the blossoming romance between Portia and Bassanio. In order to effectively have the means to court her, the poor Bassanio must borrow 3,000 ducats. He does so by enlisting his friend Antonio to guarantee the loan of the funds from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Shylock, having suffered continually from Antonio's anti-Semitic treatment, reluctantly agrees to lend the funds but only if Antonio agrees that instead of interest he will give Shylock a pound of his flesh if he is unable to pay the loan when due.

While it isn't hard to guess in what direction the play will go in regard to the repayment of the loan, with Shylock at first getting the upper hand, but Shakespeare also doesn't truly make Antonio, Bassanio and their cohorts pay for their inexcusable anti-Semitic religious views and actions. Shylock was originally portrayed as the comical villain of the piece and his comeuppance was, assumedly, cheered by audiences who thought he got what he deserved. However, with the rise of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust, times and views have changed. Those shifting sentiments have now turned Shylock into more of the hero of the story, with many of the other characters now being the villains and their behavior is somewhat shocking and completely inexcusable due to their treatment toward him. While it is debatable if Shakespeare was trying to simply show and reflect the prejudices of his time or if he was actually supportive of this behavior, the many humorous scenes and comical characters, which take up the bulk of the piece, are now vastly at odds with the dramatic moments which portray the horrible treatment of Shylock. And that's the problem with The Merchant of Venice for modern audiences—it is now an uneven piece unlike anything else in Shakespeare's cannon. Imagine if The Diary of Anne Frank had tap dances interspersed to liven up the mood and you get the equivalent of how uneven this play now seems.

Fortunately, this production has a talented cast led by Mike Traylor who is giving a heartwrenching and sensitive portrayal of Shylock as a strong man who has suffered much hatred. We sympathize with him, even though he isn't completely likable, due to how the other characters treat him. His delivery of the famous "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" monologue is superb and full of humanity and compassion. As Antonio, Clay Sanderson delivers a well-mannered portrayal of this man who is full of animosity and hatred. When the tables turn on him during the courtroom scene, Sanderson is exceptional at portraying Antonio's realization of the reality of the situation.

Alison Campbell and Kyle Sorrell provide clear and layered performances as the excitable lovers Portia and Bassanio. Melody Knudson delivers a strong performance as Shylock's daughter Jessica and William Wilson is quite good as the man who woos her and asks her to leave her father and her religion behind. In supporting parts, Keath David Hall and Megan Lindsay provide detailed portrayals. Hall's refined performance paints a clear picture of Gratiano, a revolting, hatred-filled man, while Lindsay's Nerissa is buoyant and full of warmth and humor. David Dickinson plays three comedic parts and his buffoonish, brood portrayals, while very fun in a stand-alone way, are unfortunately majorly at odds with the dramatic scenes where Shylock is repeatedly called a "Jewish dog" or spit on.

Director Kent Burnham has updated the setting to New York City and the Hamptons in the late 1920s. He does this, presumably, to show that, while the anti-Semitic behavior of the characters isn't truly condemned and in many ways accepted by Shakespeare, they will all get their due when the stock market crashes and the Great Depression sets in, which are both just right around the corner. Burnham does well in keeping the tension taut in the dramatic scenes, especially during the courtroom sequence in act two. Burnham also adds on a coda to the end, right after Shakespeare's happy ending, which shows what becomes of Shylock. It is a stunning moment, though it doesn't quite discount the disjointed moments that came before it.

While the set design by Tiana Torrilhon is simple and lovely, it never truly gets across the updated setting, though Adriana Diaz's costumes are quite exquisite and period perfect. Also, Daniel Davisson's lighting design is rich and textured.

Even though it is now somewhat uneven, with the comical moments out of balance to the gut-wrenching dramatic scenes, The Merchant of Venice is still a thought provoking, powerful and important piece of drama full of honesty, truthfulness and ugliness. The play's theme of religious prejudice still resonates with modern audiences, especially in the current political climate, in which some people believe that all Muslims are branded as potential terrorists. Southwest Shakespeare Company's production features a very good cast and clear direction and a brief added ending scene that helps show the tragic outcome that transpires from the horrific religious hatred that the play portrays.

The Merchant of Venice runs through October 29th, 2016, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa, AZ. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 480-644-6500.

Director: Kent Burnham
Scenic Designer: Tiana Torrilhon
Production Stage Manager: Jenissa Yauney
Costume Designer: Adriana Diaz
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Hair and Make-Up Designer: Sasha Wordlaw
Properties Designers: Petey Swartz
Sound Designer: Jeff Wood

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Solanio: Isak Bond
Portia: Alison Campbell
Prince of Morocco / Prince of Arragon /Launcelot Gobbo: David Dickinson
Gratiano: Keath David Hall
Jessica: Melody Knudson
Nerissa: Megan Lindsay
Stephanie: Alexandra Messersmith
Duke of Venice / Tubal: Darryl Poenisch
Antonio: Clay Sanderson
Bassanio: Kyle Sorrell
Shylock: Mike Traylor
Salerio: Connor Wanless
Lorenzo: William Wilson