Successfully handling Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and its complex villain Shylock is one of the more daunting tasks in modern theater. The Bard’s intricate web work portraying bitter business machinations, the nature of antisemitism, pursuits of true love and conflicts between mercy and justice provide enough content for a half a dozen plots. A successful staging of Merchant must touch upon all of these facets and somehow link them into a coherent evening of theater. Prize winning director Desdemona Chiang and an outstanding cast more than meet this challenge in their stunning production at Seattle Shakespeare.
Set designer Shawn Ketchum Johnson lays out a pattern of steel pipes and wooden planks that will represent the hard scrabble Venice. While the audience is still finding their seats, a homeless beggar enters the stage and finds a spot to sleep under a bridge. A melancholy Antonio gets a shoeshine. In an interesting touch, Shylock briefly enters and silently leaves money at the beggar’s feet, before giving him a sturdy nudge with a foot. The sound of a modern city churning through its day fills the air. And we’re off! Soon a lovesick Bassanio will arrive complaining he doesn’t have the money to woo the lovely Portia of Belmont. Antonio will provide him with the financial means, but he must obtain a loan from the crafty money broker Shylock.
As he has done in past Seattle Shakespeare productions, Darragh Kennan, playing Antonio, brings an effective naturalistic approach to the Bard’s lines. He opens the play complaining, “In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” The root of his melancholia remains a mystery throughout the play. Antonio is a tough assignment indeed, for along with portraying his loving friendship with Bassanio (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) he must also display a steadfast rancor in his dealings with Shylock.
Chiang has chosen Seattle’s remarkable Amy Thone for the role of Shylock. Thone imbues her character with a vibrant pride coupled with a seething rage that continuously boils just beneath her surface. She and Kennan hint at a deep acrimonious history between them. A deal has been arranged; Antonio will have the money to aid Bassanio, but must forfeit a pound of flesh if he is unable to repay Shylock’s loan.
Meanwhile, in Belmont, the lovely Portia, played by a delightful Jen Taylor, waits to see which suitor can choose the correct casket and thus win her hand in marriage. We have landed in a Shakespearian version of The Bachelorette. The Prince of Morocco (Jason Sanford) enlivens his suit with some rousing hip-hop dance moves. Both he and the Prince of Aragon (Carlos Wagener-Sobrero) fail to solve the riddle in front of them, much to the relief of the bemused Portia. To her relief, the charming Bossanio has arrived to be the third contestant in the game. Taylor displays some impressive comedic chops throughout these proceedings.
Shakespeare connects the two plots when Portia and her trusty maid Nerissa (Lindsay W. Evans) learn from Bossanio that Antonio has lost his fortunes and cannot repay Shylock. The two maidens disguise themselves as men and rush back to Venice in an attempt to save Antonio from the vengeful Shylock who is ready to claim his pound of flesh. Here, Taylor turns her performance around on a dime. In Venice, she is no longer the charismatic Portia, but rather a persuasive articulate debater outwitting the entire court. I have never heard “the quality of mercy is not strained” speech given so movingly.
In creating Shylock, Shakespeare eschews the traits of a stock villain and provides a moving depth to the moneylender. Thone ably portrays a multidimensional, feeling character. The painful cost of a legal victory over Shylock was nearly tangible for the opening night audience.
Chiang has assured that even the smaller roles of the play are purposefully played out. Katya Landau as Shylock’s conflicted daughter Jessica, captures both the pain and joy of rebelling against her mother, running off with Lorenzo (Trick Danneker). Both Danneker and Sloniker do solid work as earnest suitors. Carter Rodriquez successfully takes on a number of roles ranging from the homeless beggar to an imposing Duke of Venice. Lindsay W. Evans and Tim Gouran have a great deal of fun playing sidekicks to Portia and Bassanio. They help insure the success of the bawdy shenanigans that occur in the closing scenes of the play.
The Seattle Shakespeare Company has really hit the production “out of the park.” Anyone interested in quality theater should take advantage of this dramatic treat. The Merchant of Venice runs through April 15 at the Center Theatre in the Seattle Center. For more ticket information go to www.seattleshakespeare.org or call 206-733-8222.