Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice” meets “Mad Men” at Custom Made

I first read “The Merchant of Venice” back in Catholic High School in the early 40’s and during this innocent time I did not realize the anti-Semitic tone of this play until I started to see various productions in the United Kingdom and here in this country. There was a production at Strafford that took place in the present that reminds me of the current production at Custom Made. The last time I saw the play was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival several years ago.
“Merchant of Venice” has always been classified as a “comedy” however I always thought of the play as a tragedy. Written between 1596 and 1598 it is best remembered for its dramatic scenes and well known for the character Shylock. During Shakespeare’s time there was a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment and it could be called “judeophotic” since the English Jews were being expelled in England. Two of The Bard’s greatest speeches are in the production. Shylock said “Hath not eyes, speech” etc etc” and Poritia great speech in the second act “Quality of Mercy etc etc”
Custom Made Theatre gives a good production of the play with many young players using the iambic pentameter of the Bard with an American accent. Rather than playing down the vicious attacks on Shylock’s faith and ethnicity, the company illuminates the witlessness and obligatory supremacy of the Christian class. In this production, Shylock is not the villain but the tragic victim. Catz Forsman does a excellent job of portraying Shylock. He is a man hated for being prosperous and following the rules of his faith and the pain of losing his daughter to a Christian does not help matters. He gives an understated performance.
Ryan Hayes plays the merchant Antonio. He does a first rate performance as a man with honorable motives. Dashiell Hillman is splendid as Bassanio and both have great chemistry as friends. Megan Briggs is excellent as Portia and puts a more natural spin on the famous speech of “Quality of Mercy”. Gabriel A Ross as the vivacious Launcelot Gobbo is charismatic with his great theatrical voice. Matt Gunnison as the gusty Gratiano and Molly Holcomb’s affecting and devoted Nerissa gives good account of themselves as the youthful couple. Perry Aliado and Stefin Collins are humorous as Portia’s suitors. Brian Martin gives an good energetic performance as Lorenzo. Jean Foreman, Claire Rice, Kim Saunders and Tonya Narvaez are effective in these roles.
Tom Malko’s modern day business suits and office dresses transport the play into the present including Erica Kimble’s props of the information age. Sarah Phykitt’s inconspicuous set is a platform flanked by stair units and a latticed balcony on the outer wall of the three sided theatre. Unfortunately two scenes are done behind the balcony and the audience has problems hearing the two young actors talking. Direction by Staurt Bousel was fast paced with actors coming in and out of scenes at the rapid speed. You could almost state this is an MTV version of The Bard’s Play for the 21st Century.
“The Merchant of Venice” plays through August 19th at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St. San Francisco. For tickets call 510-207-5774 or on line at www.custommade.org