Review #2: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at The Kennedy Center

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.” – William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

This image of a hypocrite – a man who is evil at his core but recites the pure words of the Bible, lies at the heart of William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. In this particular scenario, the man described is Shylock, a Jewish man who is ridiculed for his faith and the stereotypes associated with it.

Jonathan Pryce and Dominic Mafham. Photo courtesy of Globe Theatre.
Jonathan Pryce and Dominic Mafham. Photo courtesy of Globe Theatre.

The way in which William Shakespeare chose to share this religious conflict has given the play labels such as “problematic” and “offensive,” which seem to make some sense. However, if one looks past the surface, important questions arise that help make this story a worthwhile one to share: What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to have a connection to God? At what point do we lose ourselves and become the image that society has thrust upon us? When that inevitable image takes form, who is at fault?

Directed by Jonathan Munby, The Merchant of Venice follows Bassanio (Dan Freedenburgh) as he sets out to marry the woman he loves, Portia (Rachel Pickup). In an effort to help his friend find the money to meet his goal, Antonio (Dominic Mafham) requests a loan from the Jewish Shylock (Jonathan Price), the richest man in Venice. Shakespeare’s comedy is filled with deception, mysterious challenges, and quests for love that make the story exciting from start to finish, and Munby took the theme of fun and revelry to an impressive height.

Two of the strongest elements of the production were the live music and sound design by Composer Jules Maxwell and Sound Designer Christopher Shutt. In collaboration with Designer Mike Britton and Munby, these elements hit it off right at the top of the show. As soon as the clock hit 7:30 PM, an ensemble started to fill the stage, all in masks of black and red. Some were playing drums or wind instruments, others were clapping and stomping to the music, and all were in absolute bliss as they brought their party to the stage. Munby immediately set the tone for what we could expect from Shakespeare’s Venice – mystery and possibility.

The dancing and music continued until two men (Jews in Red Hats) entered the stage. Drumming slowed down and quieted until a stop, and a stand-off ensued between groups. A couple of the ensemble members stepped forward, and beat down each of the Jews while the others cheered. Eventually the men were able to run off, and the dancing and music carried on. The interaction prepared us for another important theme within the play: the role and supposed power of religion in Venice.

Shylock is the embodiment of this theme, and how the other characters interact with him. Society mocks him, particularly Antonio, who later finds that his actions cause Shylock to take his own revenge when deciding the terms of his loan. Shylock’s own daughter, Jessica (Phoebe Pryce) wishes to be a Christian, and finds herself romantically drawn towards Lorenzo (Andy Apollo), who can convert her to the majority religion. Jews in the play are connected to the devil, and Jonathan Pryce brought this conflict to life through his portrayal of the famous Jewish character.

We first meet Shylock when Antonio requests a loan, and though Shylock’s terms are harsh, they are fair. Pryce delivered them with a sense of calm and level-headedness, which sharply contrasted those of Mafham’s Antonio. As he became more and more frustrated, we see him lash out, and even attack Shylock, which presents a fascinating question: Who is the animal? Is it the “Jew”? Or is the “animal” the one resorting to violence? Through his portrayal, Pryce manages to challenge the stereotypes thrust upon Jews in Shakespeare’s Venice, creating an exciting and thought-provoking story to watch unfold.

Outside of the religious conflict we have the young lovers, and the need for Portia to find a husband according to her recently deceased father’s wishes. The two suitors provided excellent humor. Giles Terera showcased a command over physical comedy through his portrayal of the Prince of Morocco, and Christopher Logan elicited just as much laughter through his approach to the Prince of Aragon with his wide vocal range that paralleled his wild emotions throughout his scene.

In contrast, Portia, along with her maid, Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) presented us with a clever wit that made their scenes exciting and fast-paced. The duo showcased excellent stage chemistry, and played off each other brilliantly.

Their humor was only enhanced when their lovers were added to the mix – Bassanio, and especially Gratiano (Jolyon Coy). Coy elicited tremendous laughter from his very first entrance in which he ran onto the stage and vomited into a bucket. From that moment forward, his stage presence was a constant joy, and I found myself rooting for him to succeed.

Jonathan Pryce and Phoebe Pryce. Photo courtesy of Globe Theatre.
Jonathan Pryce and Phoebe Pryce. Photo courtesy of Globe Theatre.

Finally, Stefan Adegbola, as Launcelot Gobbo, was an absolute riot. Gobbo acts as the Fool in the play who always has a joke, and seems to know everyone’s business. Munby enhanced this element through utilizing a variety of entrances for Adegbola, allowing him to intrude upon moments between other characters and sneak up by surprise, which always elicited laughter from the audience. Adegbola’s comedic timing was spot-on, and I always looked forward to his scenes, eager to see what he would do next.

Witty, thought-provoking, and visually-striking, Merchant of Venice is an event you do not want to miss. London’s own Globe Theatre presents us with an exciting opportunity to experience their work, and I highly advise taking advantage before it is too late.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

The Merchant of Venice plays through this Saturday, July 30, 2015, 2016 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
Review #1: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at The Kennedy Center by David Friscic.

Review #2: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at The Kennedy Center by Lauren Katz.