Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0414. Monday, 3 June 1996.
From: W. L. Godshalk <
Date: Sunday, 02 Jun 1996 23:07:10 -0400
Subject: Fahrenheit *Merchant of Venice*
On Friday, May 31, the Fahrenheit Theatre Company opened its run of *The
Merchant of Venice* to enthusiastic applause. Directed by Jasson Minadakis,
set in twentieth century Italy, the action takes place in the center of the
audience -- theatre in the square, if you will. Center stage is composed of
three superimposed, tiled squares, at right angles to each other, the two
internal squares elevated, the third square to about three feet. The actors
enter from the north, south, east, and west.
The action begins with Antonio mounting to the inner square while the entire
case circulates around him. As they withdraw and he's alone, he begins, "In
sooth, I know not why I am so sad." Nicholas Rose's Antonio is definitely not
sad because he has a homosexual attachment to Bassanio (C. Charles Scheeren).
Rose's Antonio is obviously troubled, possibly because, in this production,
every time he reaches out to someone, he is rejected in some way.
Marni Penning plays a blond, elegantly dressed Portia -- black pants suit and
gold jewelry, supported by her sister Lisa Penning as Nerissa. If Venice is a
city of business activity, Portia's Belmont is a place where Portia and Nerissa
are preoccupied with discussing and processing an international "trade" in
suitors. The Penning sisters are excellent in creating an atmosphere where
love is subordinate to the desire for the Golden Fleece. Sheeren's Bassanio
does little to dispel this atmosphere. He and Gratiano do not come across as
vibrant Italian lovers -- and more than usual, I wonder what Portia and
Nerissa see in these two, easily duped and manipulated husbands?
William Sweeney's Shylock is tall, thin, and ascetic -- with a Vandyke beard
-- a dapper, well-dressed businessman. In his first scene with Antonio and
Bassanio, his rancor is subordinate, and the negotiations are basically carried
on with good humor. Shylock smiles. This production emphasizes that Shylock
turns vicious only after the elopement of Jessica.
At the same time, the anti-Semitism and general xenophobia of the Italian
Christian community is underscored. Khristopher Lewin presents a rabid
anti-Semite, who hates all Jews including Jessica. He discourages by gesture
Lorenzo (Richard Kelly) from eloping with her =96 his "infidel." Jim Stump's
Solanio is especially offensive in his caricature of Shylock. Chris Reeder's
Launcelot Gobbo, of course, recurrently points to Jessica's Jewishness. And
Portia's "Let all of his complexion choose me so" (2.7.79) fits into the
xenophobic pattern. Minadakis has not minimized this (troubling) aspect of the
Richard Kelly and Jeanne Gibowicz play a very ambiguous Lorenzo and Jessica. It
appears that they are not ardent young lovers. Jessica is hesitant, and
Lorenzo is rather cool and distant. (An auditor sitting behind me said, "I
don't think this marriage is going to last." Quite right.)
Bassanio's choice of caskets is played straight -- with no song to rhyme with
"lead" ("Tell me where is fancy bred,/Or in the heart or in the head?"), and no
sub rosa gestures by Nerissa to indicate the right casket to Bassanio.
The trial scene makes good use of the square stage. The Duke is elevated about
twenty feet above center stage (and to the south). Antonio, disheveled, sits
to the west, and Shylock, still cool and dapper, to the east. Each is
spotlighted. The other characters are positioned behind the audience, except
when needed. Portia, a small, prim man in glasses, begins her presentation in
the north. As she speaks, the audience hears murmurs from Solanio and Gratiano
(and perhaps others). At the crucial moment, Shylock holds the bare-breasted
Antonio on the top square of the stage and contemplates stabbing him -- Portia
or no Portia. When he finally drops the knife, Antonio picks it up and
considers, in turn, stabbing Shylock. Antonio's words to the Duke are not
spoken in tones of Christian forgiveness. And when Shylock's Star of David is
torn from his neck, Antonio puts it in his pocket -- for later use.
One anomaly of this production is that Salerio is female (Toni
Brotons-Goodney). In the final scene, she enters on Antonio's arm -- and it
appears that Antonio will not be left alone at play's end. But not so: Salerio
is claimed by Solanio. Antonio then reaches out to Jessica -- handing her
Shylock's Star of David. Jessica rejects the ambiguous gift, turns, and
leaves, while Lorenzo stares coldly into Antonio's face. As Lorenzo goes,
Antonio's face is filled with anguish -- and the lights go out. I found this a
very affecting as well as puzzling moment. Does Antonio hand her the Star to
remind her that she is still Jewish even if she is married to a Christian? Or
does he reach out, ineptly, one more time, and is this his final rejection?
Richard Arthur and Chris Reeder play a variety of rolls. Arthur plays Old
Gobbo, Balthasar, and the Duke; Reeder, young Gobbo, Tubal, and the Gaoler.
They remain busy creating a population for the play.
The production runs until June 16 at the Aronoff Center in downtown Cincinnati.
(Fahrenheit Theatre Company: 513-559-0642). I give it all four stars, and say,