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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: The Merchant of Venice

(Photo credit: E. Julee)

Still Relevant
Dawson explores the dangerous waters of ...Venice
By Byron Toben

First off, congrats to director Jude Beny who had to take over The Merchant of Venice late in the game from 87 year old  Dawson icon Victor Knight. The snazzy production kept Shakespeare's classic moving right along. 

Sixteen actors portrayed the twenty characters with zest, keeping the five (!) stage managers busy. Lotsa clever body movement, some pratfalls and even a rope climbing scene.

Even though Antonio is the merchant title character Shylock, a Jewish money lender who is another merchant in the city state of Venice, is such a powerful character that he is often confused as the one referred to.

It is hard for any students, however talented, to fully master the iambic pentameter verse of Mr. Shakespeare. The character of Shylock played on opening night by James Soares-Correia (he alternates with Adam Capriolo as Tubal) has big shoes to fill. One is measured against greats such as Edmond Kean, Laurence Olivier, Al Pacino and Jacob Adler (who performed it to acclaim in both English and Yiddish).

Two continuing current themes…intolerance and women's independence.

One must wrestle with the haunting dual dimensions of the play. Is it an anti-Semitic tirade of the times portraying the Jew as avaricious and lacking mercy? Or does it go against the grain by giving Shylock a human dimension (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”) and motivation for seeking his “pound of flesh”?

My own feeling tends toward the latter. Yet it must be admitted that to the unsophisticated viewer, the play can indeed be a rabble rouser. Joeseph Goebbels had it broadcast in tandem with Kristalnacht.

The play's Portia ( “The quality of mercy is not strained”) is also an example of a forerunner of Shaw's new woman and our own generation's women's lib. Rich, beautiful, prankish and clever with a (dare I say:) Talmudic parsing of the law, she saves Antonio while cross-dressing as a young lawyer. Still, you can't please everyone. British playwright Wolf Mankowitz saw her as a "cold, snobbish, little bitch". This is hard to see in Grace Gordon's pleasant interpretation of her here, but  a close reading of the text gives this some credence.

Which raises the question of what happened after? There has been a play about the two couples in The Importance of Being Earnest twenty years on and not all so blissful. Apparently, Sigmund Freud's daughter essayed something similar years after Nora left her hubby in A Doll's House. So would the reckless gambler Bassanio, whose  pursuit of Portia led to Antonio's plight, prove a steady husband to that lady thereafter? Or would his choosing of the lead casket, since “all that glisters is not gold” be his apex?

All in all, Dawson's theatre program continues to give great value.

The Merchant of Venice continues at the Dawson Theatre until November 26. Call 514-931-5000.

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