by Everett Goldner · May 29, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #91: Everett Goldner comments on The Merchant of Venice
This is the fourth mainstage production of the non-profit education/arts group The Shakespeare Forum. Their first show, Hamlet, in 2012, was a conceptually thrilling shot in the arm for the Dane; their second, Midsummer Night’s Dream, was overwrought much of the time, but nonetheless ambitious. I didn’t see their Love’s Labour’s Lost last year. But having seen their Merchant of Venice, playing through June 14th at the Gym at Judson, my overriding impression is that Forum’s ship is moving in the wrong direction. This is a production that is held together by little beyond an excellent performance by Dominic Comperatore, a Broadway veteran, as Antonio, who is wisely given some grace notes at the start and close of the three-hour running time. Many of the show’s other performances seem subordinate to some idea of a relationship between Jews and Christians, but this gist of an idea never finds definition, shape or color. I have acted in Merchant myself, I know it intimately, but this is a production in which I had to take a continual, taxing mental backlog to keep track of where we were, what had happened and what was coming up. This is a production with a spare, elegant set and a number of good actors that is at best a struggle to like, and far too easy to disengage from. This is a production that gives only in isolated moments, and seems unwilling to hazard a pint, let alone a pound.
This is not a good step for Shakespeare Forum, an organization that often thrives on the spirit of the moment, on inclusivity. (Disclosure: I have been loosely associated with Forum for about four years.) As always in Forum shows, actors interact with the audience, particularly Francis Mateo, who provides a sorely-needed light touch as the clown, Launcelot/Gobbo, but the interaction this time is an afterthought to the deliberately slow, almost funereal energy that permeates much of the show. Such incrementally building pace might work better when playing to a full house (the house was about half full when I saw it), but a show that leaves the house lights on, making the audience neighbors rather than spectators in the dark, then can’t or won’t deal with the neighbors it happens to have that evening is a show that’s got deep problems. Is it tragical? Is it comical? Is it tragical-comical-historical-pastoral? The world may never know.
The problems begin early, when, after the aforementioned grace notes for Antonio, we are shown our erstwhile heroines, Portia and Nerissa, who are presumably enjoying some girl talk about Portia’s gaggle of silly suitors, except both wear ostentatious headgear more suggestive of Cleopatra than girls who want to let their hair down, and move and speak in the manner of eighteenth-century oil portraits. As with another staging device the show plays with, then discards prematurely – Antonio and Shylock delivering their early arguments to a young pageboy, in some sense vying to be the boy’s teacher – the Portia/Nerissa byplay seems at once too heavily structured and incomplete. There is never in the scene, as there will be rarely throughout the evening, any sort of climaxing beat that lets us into their world, cues us that one moment has ended and another is on the rise. The indeterminate pause; the indicated gesture. The lack of specificity. It’s as if someone deeply asleep was dreaming of Waiting for Godot, then started dreaming of Merchant, but forgot to change the marquee on their dream-theater. And in truth, it’s as if the production doesn’t trust its actors to inhabit their roles and fill up the room.
These half-measures are exemplified in the performance of Joseph J. Menino, the show’s Shylock. I don’t mean to imply that Menino isn’t present or alive; he absolutely is, and his crushing misery at the court’s verdict late in the show is one of the few moments when the show’s heaviness feels earned.
And yet. This Shylock is such a humane presence, so easy to feel for, such a really nice guy, that he has no teeth. His primary emotions here are pity (for the self, for others) and a deeply religious veneration of his society’s laws and strictures. It’s a performance that’s wholly well-crafted, but it’s a stretch to relate to; time and time again, I had to ask myself where the relevance and impact were, and I found no answers. This Shylock-cum-Willy Loman would’ve made more sense in an age where society’s strictures kept people from loving who they wanted to, where obedience and disobedience meant something. To be sure, it’s a performance in perfect alignment with Forum’s hope that “(the show) will add to the vital dialogue surrounding ideas of tolerance and acceptance…”
It’s a performance in service of something, and perhaps in search of a finer ideal than the text will allow Shylock to find. But I never for a single moment understood why this Jew wanted to cut the Christian’s flesh open and rejoice. That flesh is “nearest the heart,” but Forum’s Merchant has not found one.
Note: I am told that since their first invited press night, the show has improved. But the May 23rd show was an official press night, and I can only review what I saw.