When we think about Shakespeare, we often picture movie adaptations like “Romeo + Juliet,” high school AP English classes or a distant stage. Rarely do we feel anything but far-reaching disconnect from the Bard and his complex works.
But Shakespeare was intended for interaction. The Globe Theatre of old was all about that. The groundlings stood throughout the production, pressed against the stage and the theatres of yore were not places of somber silence – groundlings and people rich enough to have seats in the gallery alike engaged in commentary and raucous conversation. One can imagine that these audiences fueled plays like “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” with their honest shock and horror, that “Romeo and Juliet” was met with tears and that “Henry V” was cheered through to its triumphant conclusion. And that is how it was intended. Shakespeare or not, every production is only as good as the exchange of energy between audience and performers.
The New Swan Theatre, temporarily settled on the Claire Trevor Theatre stage, is an incredible structure. From the outside, it looks like a mass of twisted wood and metal. Step inside, and everyone takes a breath. Seating spirals from the floor (or, in this case, the “groundlings”) up to the second tier, forming a cyclone of spectators around the circular playing space anchored on one end by a wall with a second story balcony. This is the stage for William Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” as directed by Eli Simon. On opening night, the New Swan saw its inaugural performance.
In Venice, Bassanio (DeShawn Mitchell) asks his longtime merchant friend Antonio (Greg Beam) to help him fund a trip to Belmont to woo the lovely Portia (Leah Dutchin). Short on cash as his ships are at sea, Antonio agrees to help him as long as Bassanio can get him a loan in the interim. Enter Shylock (Richard Brestoff), a rich money-lending Jew who hates Antonio for his anti-Semitism. Shylock agrees to lend him money without insurance as long as he pays him back by a certain date. If Antonio cannot pay him back, he owes Shylock a pound of his flesh. Money in hand, Bassanio heads off to Belmont.
However, Antonio’s ships are declared lost at sea and he becomes destitute. Jessica (Anika Solveig), Shylock’s daughter, runs off and converts to Christianity so she can marry Lorenzo (Lucas Calhoun), a friend of Bassanio and Antonio. As a result, Shylock’s hatred of the Christians grows and subsequently has Antonio arrested and sent to trial.
Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia sees suitors (Anthony Simone and Chris Klopatek), making them choose between which of three caskets contains her portrait, and thus her hand in marriage. Each suitor proves themselves unsuitable until Bassanio chooses correctly and wins Portia’s heart.
When news of the trial gets to Belmont, Bassanio rushes to Antonio’s side. Portia follows and disguises herself as a doctor of the law so she can help her new husband’s friend. After Antonio is successfully cleared of his debt and his life is spared, the play concludes with Shylock’s enforced conversion to Christianity, the happy couples returning to Belmont and Antonio’s ships found and his fortune restored.
In this production, the misadventures of Portia, Antonio and Shylock take place in fascist Italy, and the update is made apparent through the vibrant satiny dresses of the ladies and the crisp uniforms and slacks of the gentlemen.
The play boasts a delightful cast of actors, each infusing their characters with the heart, comedy and romance needed. The supporting cast, which includes the two suitors, their silent attendants (Vinny Tangherlini and Alex Makardish), and the clown Lancelot Gobbo (Craig Fox) are riotously funny. One the opposite end of the spectrum, Solveig’s Jessica packs a powerful punch in the last moment of the play: When everyone capers off the stage, laughing in the face of their hijinks, Antonio offers her Shylock’s dagger and she takes it with great gravitas that renders the audience breathless.
And then there’s Shylock. “Merchant of Venice” is one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays. Though it bears the same conventions of his other comedies, “Merchant” is best known for Shylock. Shylock is intended to be the villain, but his dramatic and heart-wrenching monologues prevent him from being canonized as such.
It’s almost unfair to review Richard Brestoff, the Associate Head of Acting in the School of the Arts, but it’s necessary. Before his entrance as Shylock, “Merchant” was enjoyable. The moment he first opened his mouth, the show was transformed from enjoyable to remarkable. Whereas Shakespeare is at times clunky even in the third-year MFA actors’ mouths, the text flowed from Brestoff as smoothly as though he was simply telling the audience about his day. The fluidity with which he spoke his lines was enchanting, and the energy he brought spread throughout the rest of the cast. In this production, Shylock’s entrance marks a moment of unity that is never lost.
The problem with this otherwise beautiful show lies in thematic consistency. The update from 16th-century Venice to pre-World War II fascist Italy is a tough sell, but changing Belmont to Hollywood doesn’t read at all. Though the intention to highlight anti-Semitism against a more familiar historical backdrop is interesting, the way Shylock is viewed is irreparably changed. There’s no way to demonize a Jewish character in a country on the cusp of World War II. (It doesn’t help that Brestoff is mind-blowingly agile in the role, either.)
“The Merchant of Venice” benefits from a strong cast, certainly, but the theatre space itself sets this show apart. The actors could seek approval from or taunt the audience or wait for a nod or a shrug as they made eye contact with anyone, even looking up to the top tier.
“We wanted to build a place to play Shakespeare that’ll allow the plays to be as they were written,” scenic designer Luke Cantarella said as part of an introduction. “Hopefully all of you in this arena are all in a different place.”
And indeed we were. Looking around the audience as the lights went down and cheery, period music began to play, there were chins resting on the railing as people leaned forward with youthful abandon, ready to see some theatre.