09 October 2016

The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare

This is the fourth, maybe fifth show I’ve seen the Rustic Mechanicals perform, and this is the first one I would say was really good. My major critique of the Mechanicals has been the tendency to painfully overact, but with this cast and for this show, they (largely) resisted that tendency. For the first time that I’ve seen them, virtually all of the cast let Shakespeare’s do the work, which made for a strong show.

The Merchant of Venice is one of those plays that I think is difficult for audiences today, and it certainly is for me (being half-Jewish). The play tells the story of Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, who loans money to Antonio, a man who has humiliated, insulted, and degraded him. The bargain trades Shylock’s money for a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the debt is not repaid. When Antonio’s ships sink it seems as though he cannot repay. At the same time, Bassanio—Antonio’s friend, for whom Antonio borrowed the money—has wooed and wedded Portio through the elaborate trial her father set up for potential husbands. Now Bassanio comes to Antonio’s trial, and Portia disguises herself as a lawyer to come speak for her husband’s friend. Shylock demands his pound of flesh, his revenge for a lifetime of oppression, but through legal trickery Portia argues that he can take the flesh but may not spill a drop of blood, and then that since Shylock threatened the life of a Venetian his goods and property are forfeit, half to Antonio and half to Venice. In short, the ‘happy ending’ of the play involves the long suffering Jew Shylock losing all his property, as well as his daughter whose run off with the deadbeat (though Christian) Lorenzo.

The principal actors of the Shylock plot—John Fallon (Shylock), James Matthews (Antonio), and Josh Brooks (Bassanio)—gave excellent performances, as did the principal actor of the Portia plot—Gretchen Ross (Portia). All of these actors brought a seriousness to their roles that is often lacking in Rustic Mechanicals performances; they put the language of the play at the center of the performance. For instance, Fallon’s performance conveyed Shylock’s stoic suffering at the play’s opening when Antonio spits on him in the street, the bloody revenge he demands in the court, and the abject brokenness of a man whose had everything he loves stripped from him (including his religion) simply for being a Jew. Matthews matched that performance by shifting between anti-Semitic arrogance, humble submission to the knife, and the gracious geniality of the man saved at the last moment from death. Brooks and Ross were similarly strong, showing the complexity of their characters as they move through the marriage plot.

While most of the supporting actors were also good, the one performer who didn’t transcend the Mechanicals’ tendency to overact was Isaac Covey (Balthazar, Lancelet Gobbo, Gaoler). For whatever reason, Covey seems unable to deliver a line without thrashing his body around, modulating his voice for ‘comic’ effect, or gesturing wildly. In an otherwise strong show, Covey’s performance was the only dark spot.