The challenge of producing Shakespeare for present-day audiences is engaging them in a narrative while using unfamiliar words and phrasing.
Trinity Repertory’s production of The Merchant of Venice, which is directed by Curt Columbus and runs through March 11, 2012, is marvelously adept at telling this particular story. The production often feels operatic - in that audience members who may be frustrated with, or unable to follow, the words as written are likely to move quickly past the language barrier and connect emotionally with the characters on stage.
In Merchant, Antonio (Joe Wilson, Jr.) is a wealthy businessman; a prominent member of Venice’s 1%. Antonio’s dear friend Bassanio (Stephen Thorne) is more playboy than entrepreneur and approaches him with yet another of his get-rich-quick schemes. Bassanio is certain that if he just had the financial means to woo the beautiful, virtuous - and wealthy - heiress Portia (Mary C. Davis), his fortunes would be reversed. All he needs is 3,000 ducats.
Antonio’s savvy business prowess has been mightily aided by a long stretch of good luck, but he is currently having what we would call “cash flow issues”. He is wealthy, just not liquid. Antonio is sure that his ships will, literally, come in - laden down with treasures. Not wanting to let down his friend, Antonio agrees to borrow the funds. Having no where else to turn, Antonio reluctantly approaches the smarmy lender Shylock (Stephen Berenson) for a loan. Sensing the opportunity to exact revenge for decades of slights, Shylock proposes to charge no interest on the loan if paid in full as agreed. Shylock‘s sinister consequence for non-payment is a "merry bond," namely a pound of Antonio's flesh. With no reason to think that his luck will ever run out, Antonio accepts the terms of Shylock’s loan. He doesn’t realize that his lucky streak has just ended.
In the title role, Joe Wilson, Jr. intrigues. Why doesn’t this successful, handsome, virile merchant have his own family? Why would he risk his life, unnecessarily, for his close friend? Is he weary of success, of the life he has chosen? Is he afraid of being left alone, being left behind, by his friend? In this rich performance, Wilson adds more to the role of Antonio than is on the page.
Stephen Thorne makes the irresponsible Bassanio charming and lovable. Given the facts, we should at least feel mild contempt for Bassinio and the choices he has made. In this portrayal we don't.
Fred Sullivan Jr. plays Gratiano, Antonio and Bassanio’s friend, as well as taking on a handful of smaller, comic roles, including a very fey potential suitor for Portia. If Fred Sullivan Jr. starred in a one-man-show of Merchant I would buy a ticket. Sullivan is as much teacher and translator of Shakespeare as he is performer. He possesses and conveys a deep understanding of the work and the audience knows that we are in good hands when Sullivan is performing the Bard’s work.
Will Austin is sweet and brings an easy familiarity to the role of Lorenzo. Darien Battle turns in a fine performance as Launcelot.
There is an interesting tension between the male and female characters in the play, which has clearly defined active and reactive roles for each. Mary C. Davis stays far away from stereotypes and plays Portia fully formed; with neither guile nor naiveté, which are the usual “go to” adjectives for Shakespeare’s women. Rachael Warren’s seemingly effortless performance as Portia’s maid Nerissa adds an interesting maternal element to the mistress/servant relationship. Caroline Kaplan is charming as Jessica, Shylock’s rebellious daughter.
In recent history, the role of Shylock is presented as if it were the title role, with a leading man – perhaps it has always been so. (Do you know who played Antonio to Al Pacino’s recent performances as Shylock or F. Murray Abraham’s or Dustin Hoffman’s?) Four centuries later, Shylock continues to compel audiences, and in this production Columbus has artfully cast against the leading man type.
As Shylock, Stephen Berenson seizes the opportunity to practice his craft on a level that recent Trinity roles have not given him. His performance builds with a steady intensity. Initially, Berenson conveys an empathy, an understanding, that being focus of the blatant, daily, anti-Semitic discrimination has hardened Shylock’s heart and rotted his moral core. When given to chance to extract payment for Antonio’s debt, Shylock holds the merchant accountable for every terrible thing that has ever happened. In just a few scenes, Berenson is able to convey Shylock’s journey from misanthrope to monster.