“The Merchant of Venice,” presented by Invictus Theatre Company, has William Shakespeare’s words but is done in a more contemporary staging by director Charles Askenaizer.
The story is about Venetian merchant Antonio (Chuck Munro) who provides his friend, Bassanio (Martin Diaz Valdes), money needed to woo Portia (Julia Badger), a very wealthy young whom he feels he has a very good chance of marrying.
The problem is that Antonio does not have the ready cash on hand, so he agrees to borrow it from the local moneylender, Shylock (Joseph Beal).
Now anyone who watches Judge Judy knows right away that lending your deadbeat friend money you don’t have and agreeing to put the cost on your credit card in hopes that he’ll repay you when his tax refund comes in usually leads to trouble.
The whole plot twists and turns on the fact that Shylock is Jewish and Antonio has proven himself to dislike Jews and Shylock in particular.
Suffice it to say that the feeling is mutual so Shylock proposes that rather than paying interest, Antonio instead pay Shylock one pound of his own flesh taken from very near his heart if he defaults on the loan.
In this case Antonio has a couple of ships laden with goods due soon so paying off the debt is in his mind a no-brainer. He tells Bassanio not to worry about the loan and just concentrate on getting the girl and therein lies the plot.
If Shakespeare had not specifically made Shylock Jewish this would be a story about a disagreeable loan shark and an over-confident merchant more reminiscent of “Breaking Bad” or “The Sopranos.”
But since Shylock is portrayed as a non-Christian, money grubbing, vengeful, Jewish outsider, the play takes on monumental significance because over the next several hundred years Shylock becomes the poster boy for what much of the European world comes to believe is bad about Jews.
In fact, Hitler stages the play several times in the 1930’s as a way of promoting anti-Semitism, bringing us to why Askenaizer has chosen to present this within the historical context of Mussolini’s Fascist WWII era Italy and reminding us of the dangers of stereotypes.
My experience with Invictus has demonstrated that they like to tell big stories in small spaces which is done very effectively, this time in the Buena Theater at the Pride Center.
Entrances and exits are very well planned and choreographed but I would like to see more specific blocking and a little less improvisational movement during the dialog.
In some ways this production is like a very high level “reading.” There isn’t a lot of room for theatricality and there is precious little in terms of scenery. The costumes by Satoe Schechner do the bulk of the work dressing the stage.
Beal has elected to play Shylock with a rather heavy accent which he manages to maintain rather well and does so with enunciation that does not further encumber the understanding of the already challenging language.
Some modern theatergoers might feel this furthers a stereotype but I believe it helps establish his character’s otherness in the eyes of his detractors.
His performance has a steady intensity brimming with an introspective emotion that seems like it might explode at any moment. He understands that for Shylock this is his chance for revenge but it requires cool calculation not impulsive action.
Munro portrays Antonio with understated animosity toward Shylock and as a loving friend towards Bassanio, taking on the burden of responsibility for his plight when Shylock demands his “pound of flesh.”
Badger plays the part of Portia well. She and Madeline Pell as her confidant, Nerissa, have excellent rapport and seem to be having a good time. The challenge for them is finding the balance between a traditional dignified demeanor and a more contemporary sensibility.
Her transformation to clever courtroom councilor is very convincing and her highly anticipated “Quality of Mercy” speech does not disappoint.
Brandon Boler as the Prince of Morocco is very effective but the standout performance goes to Jack Morosoville as the onstage troubadour performing multiple minor roles, especially that of the Duke who has taken up the challenge of winning Portia’s hand. More than anyone else, he seemed to have a full command of the intonation and inflection of the Elizabethan dialect.
Scholars continue to debate whether Shakespeare is sending a signal of tolerance through Shylock when he says, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?…If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
The play’s ending suggests a resolution that was likely more acceptable to the Christian community in Shakespeare’s time and therefore must be considered through an historical filter.
So in the end, it is still left to the audience to decide and derive the meaning that makes most sense. Undoubtedly, Shakespeare saw his characters as complex and often flawed individuals
I like to think that he simply wanted us to ponder these questions for ourselves and perhaps consider that there is good and bad in everyone. That revenge, justice, and mercy are part of the human experience and we as humans can exercise some influence over how we treat one another.
DETAILS: “The Merchant of Venice”is presented by Invictus Theatre Company at The Buena Theater in the Pride Arts Center, 4147 N Broadway, Chicago, IL through Nov. 17, 2019. For tickets and other information visit invictustheatreco.
For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago