The Merchant of Venice Meets Rodgers, Hammerstein and Donald Trump

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, The Merchant of Venice

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

The producers of Shakespeare and Co., in Lenox, Massachusetts, promised theatergoers a “different” production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice this summer. It sure is.

In this dazzling staging set in the early 1600s, in the round, actors hum the 1950s tune Some Enchanted Evening from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s World War II musical South Pacific and dance to Stephen Foster’s 19th century song Camptown Races. You can’t get any wilder than that? Sure, you can. In the “game show” part of the play, suitors must pick one box out of three with glamour girl Portia’s portrait in it in order to win her hand. One suitor pulls out the photo. It is not of Portia, though, but Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump, big smile on his face and orange hair flowing.

Donald Trump in Venice in the early 1600s? You have just got to love this play.

The engaging show, which just opened, starts with a boisterous party involving the elegantly dressed actors in legendary Venetian masks. An ambitious shipping magnate, Antonio, needs a lot of money, right away, and borrows it from Shylock, a local Jewish usurer. The price if he does not pay up on time? A pound of flesh near his heart (his death). Antonio is not worried because he has ships coming into Venice from several lands and there is really no fear of not being able to pay the debt.

Or is there?

As Antonio worries about his debt, different subplots of the story unwind. Wealthy men are looking for gorgeous young women. Young women are looking for proper husbands. The Christians continually make fun of the Jews. The angry Jews back off.

Bassanio and Portia seem headed for the altar, as does Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, and her very Christian man.

The various subplots all come together in Act Two, when Antonio’s fortunes collapse and, penniless, he falls victim to Shylock’s bloody agreement and the tension in Venice, and the theater, heightens.

Tina Packer’s deft staging of the play in the round makes it a crowd pleaser. Actors cavort throughout the aisles of the audience and appear suddenly in the balcony to deliver their lines. Many actors use members of the audiences as performers in the play. Several actors leap into the seats and sit next to people there and carry on their dialogues. One guy plopped himself down in the seat right next to mine and carried on an argument with Shylock. They scared the daylights out of me. I thought they were going to take a pound of my flesh.

Packer has added music and dance to the play and managed to evoke happiness and gaiety at the same time that the awful plot about anti-Semitism and the pound of flesh unfold.

The costumes, by Tyler Kinney, are as elegant as elegant can be and the props brought on stage (there is no regular set) are enough to create many different scenes. Underlying all of that is a huge white cross painted on the floor of the stage to symbolize … well, it symbolizes something for everybody.

The play is not as smooth and provocative as most of Shakespeare’s offerings. It is disjointed. There is tragedy. There is comedy. The plot moves one way, then another. All of that is overcome by Packer’s fine directorial work and the talents of a superb group of actors.

Packer gets fine work from the talented Jonathan Epstein as a Shylock who moves about more like a 21st century Wall Street hedge fund manager than a 1600s Jewish lender. There is Shahar Isaac as Bassanio, the friend to many, lover to Antonio and a man smitten, just smitten, by the charms of wealthy heiress Portia. Other fine performances are by Kate Abbruzzese as Shylock’s daughter Jessica, Eric Avari as the Prince of Morocco and others, the zany Thomas Brazzo as Lancelot, who hip hops and high steps throughout Venice, a smile on his face and a song in his heart and John Hadden as Antonio.

Tamara Hickey, as blonde Portia, just steals the show, though. She is gorgeous, funny, regaling and the center of activity for nearly three hours. She is fabulous as Portia and even better when she is disguised as a lawyer in the trial of Shylock. She is nothing short of wonderful, a 21st century dream girl dancing the night away in 1600s Venice.

There is some homosexuality in the play, sort of forced on the audience, as Bassanio and Antonio kiss on stage (this does NOT work). There are a few scenes of mild racism against the dark skinned Moors from North Africa. The real controversy in the play is the very ugly, and very historically accurate, hatred of the Jews by many in Venice in Shakespeare’s story, as seen through the victimization of Shylock.

You sit in the audience and just cringe at the way Shylock is spoken to, often called a “dog.” The Venetians, all of them, it seems at times in the play, hate the Jews (not enough not to borrow money from them, though). Shylock’s own daughter, Jessica, hates being a Jew so much, and a frequent target of anti-Jewish bigotry, that she wants to convert to Christianity.

Shakespeare sets up Shylock as a despicable person, too, and the inference is that all Jews should be seen as lowly as him. At the end of the play, Shylock turns down the money Antonio owes him, that another offers to pay, and insists on his pound of flesh. Numerous people try to talk him out of it, including a lawyer in the fabled “mercy is not strained” monologue, but he perseveres and your hatred of him grows, as does your ill will towards the Jews of Venice. The anti-Semitism in the play makes you sick to your stomach.

The treatment of the Jews in the play is mild compared to the actual treatment of the Jews in Venice in that era, though. Most were shuffled off to a ‘ghetto’ where they had to stay and work. There was a nighttime curfew for them and when they ventured out of the ghetto into the streets of the city they had to wear ‘holocaust’ style Jewish ID badges (today, the Venice ghetto is very small, but is home to hundreds of Jews and has several synagogues and a museum. I have been there; it is worth the trip).

You think Venice was bad for the Jews in the 1600s? Spain’s government ruled at the end of the fifteenth century that Jews had to abandon their religion, convert to Christianity or leave the country. Most converted and the rest left or were arrested and booted out.

Shakespeare’s own England at the time Merchant was written? Ha! There were no Jews. The crown kicked them out in 1290 and in the 1600s being a Jew was a crime (the few Jews around met secretly).

Jewish life was horrible in Shakespeare’s era and Merchant just touches the surface of the international persecution of them.

Director Tina Packer has done a superb job with the anti-Semitism and tragedy in the play, and an equally fine job of presenting the comedy in it, and there is a lot of fun to be had in the watery canals of Venice in the early 1600s.

Shakespeare and Co. has presented a number of fine Shakespearean plays over the years and this is certainly one of the best.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Shakespeare and Co. Sets: Kris Stone, Costumes: Tyler Kinney, Fighting: Matthew Miller, Sound: Daniel Levy, Choreography: Kristin Wold, Fight Choreographer: Jonathan Croy. The play is directed by Tina Packer. It runs through August 21.

comments powered by Disqus