The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare

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                                               Cast of Merchant of Venice

Director Glenn Havlan set his version of Shakespeare’s comedy, as he says in his notes,”in a twisted near future, now more likely than it was when we began to plan this production.  As populism and nationalism resists diversity; the illegitimacy of racism and the exploitation of its fear and loathing by moneyed interests, pernicious enemies of community and progress.”  And he adds:, ” If we read the ‘Christians’; and the ‘Jews’ to represent, in a larger sense, the ‘oppressors’ and the ‘oppressed,’ we can open up the play to a broader 21st century perspective.”  In this respect, sets and costumes range from 17th to 21st century.

Havlan direction allows the comedy to move along at a good pace, yet lets actors get their messages across. I was totally engaged from start to finish. Actors upstage need to project, however, as their speeches get lost in the flys.

Havlan cast the brilliant actor Frederico Edwards as Shylock whom costume designer Taurean Feaster dressed in skull-cap and a Middle-Eastern style robe.  As is the tradition, then and now, men strap a knife to their waist.  Those of us familiar with one of the plots, know that three suitors vie for the wealthy heiress Portia’s hand.  Portia is played by blonde, beautiful Gaby Schneider who would benefit from investing more nuance to her character and avoid throwing away lines as she tends to appear vapid, relying on two expressions: confusion or surprised happiness.  Her suitors: Prince of Morrocco (Heren Patel); Prince of Aragon (excellent Greg Gutting as a preening, over-the-top fop); and Bassanio (well-played by Abdulrahim Harara), adviser and friend of Antonio (a strong, confident Eric Nelson) a businessman, ship owner.  The suitors are tasked with choosing among three the caskets the one containing Portia’s picture. One of the suitors guesses correctly, a ring is given.

The play hangs on money and loss:  Antonio, reluctantly,  borrows money from Shylock for insurance on his merchant ships, promising to pay him back when the ships contents are sold.  The ships are lost at sea; Shylock demands repayment.  Antonio can’t; Shylock then states that Antonio must pay with a literal pound of flesh cut from his (Antonio’s) body.  Antonio submits.  Portia steps up, but not with payment, but to argue the case in court.  Here, she and her lady-in-waiting, Nerrissa (Shannon Alane Harger), now engaged and also be-ringed, create a ruse played out in court.

The play ends happily, as all comedies must.  Yet Shylock disappears, undone, humiliated.

Jews had been exiled from Venice, in fact from all of Italy.  The remaining few lead lives of desperation, skulking around, and doing nothing to call attention to themselves.  A few, like Shylock, manage to amass resources from the only areas from which they were allowed to wreak out some kind of existence- collecting items they felt they could somehow turn into cash, or trade for more valuable goods.  Some became underground money-lenders, exacting exorbitant interest from their borrowers.  Some, merchants, selling their findings, or expensive items gotten from those who owed them money.  Such was the life of Shylock.

It is to Havlan’s credit that his Shylock is not a caraciture, but a believable human being with many sides, including one of a wry, comic sense.  This is evident not only dealing with the others, but also with his daughter, Jessica (a strong Krista White), who has a mind of her own.  We see how he feels about her when she goes missing, and he envisions her in a coffin covered with ducats she managed to acquire.

The Theater of Others’ mostly Shakespearean plays, are staged in the huge Kelly Cowan Auditorium.  Havlan makes the expanse intimate by blocking it off with flats and setting up stepped risers which brings the audience close to the stage.  Some scenes take place on the floor in front of the stage itself.  Simple sets  as well as lighting and projections by Lijesh Krishnan, Eric Nelson, Sound, and Beau Dream, musical composition and performance (Stephano) create the ambiance, set the scenes and enhance the play. The Theater of Others mission is to bring classic theater to everyone.  Its admission is always pay-what-you-will for every show, and “We-Pay-You” every Thursday!

Produced by The Theater of Others in association with Theare Residencies Incorporated and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation.

Final performances: Thursday, 3/30, Fri, 3/31 Sat, 4/1 @8, and Sunday, 4/2 @ 2PM; 220 Golden Gate Avenue at Leavenworth, Muni, BART

Don’t miss it!