Trust William Shakespeare to dramatize our most cringe-worthy pretentions and hypocrisies and show us how they play out. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the prolific playwright’s death, and it’s amazing how little we’ve changed since his time. Case in point: The Merchant of Venice, directed by Helen Borgers, playing at the Richard Goad Theatre through June 18.
With its overt prejudices, both ethnic and religious, Merchant is not an easy play to stage. As director Borgers notes in the playbill, “It was not a decision made lightly!” Though the play itself presents a relatively balanced view of the characters, the deck is ultimately stacked against anyone who is “different,” in this case anyone not a Christian male.
In a previous production of Merchant at the Goad a few years ago, Jewish moneylender Shylock was the very voice of reason. Here, wholeheartedly played by Ari Agbabian, Shylock acts of out of pure passion and myopic belief. The other characters are similarly limited in their perspectives.
Antonio (Cort Huckabone), the merchant who borrows from Shylock against a collateral pound of his own flesh, is the embodiment of Christian values, lending money for free and stalwartly willing to pay his debt to Shylock when he loses everything. His friends Gratiano (Christopher Fuentes) and Bassanio (played with sincerity by Gerardo Macias) stand by him, chivalric in their loyalty and deference to the law as they try to persuade Shylock to dismiss his wronged feelings as if they don’t count, and to change his terms as if the contract wasn’t legitimately made.
Who is right? It’s up to heiress Portia (Holly Bittinger), disguised as a young, male doctor of law, with help from her maid Nerissa (Jessica Arcuri, with a very natural performance) disguised as her younger male clerk, to sway the opinion of the court with a genius close reading of the law.
Portia herself is caught in a belief system that dictates she can only express her brilliance disguised as a man, and otherwise must resort to petty (though amusing) manipulations of her lover, Bassanio.
Moreover, despite her wealth, which is desired by several suitors, she is powerless to choose to whom she gives it– or herself– in marriage.
She must instead suffer the indignity of having to marry the man who chooses the right box (gold, silver or lead) in which her portrait resides.
These scenes of Portia’s suitors choosing boxes are nevertheless among the more light-hearted of the play. The Prince of Morocco (Courtney Sims) and Prince of Arragon (Ketty Citterio) are hilarious with their exaggerated egos and mannerisms, however culturally stereotyped and racially derisive.
Costumes are sumptuous in the Elizabethan style, with the second half even offering a change of outfits for most characters into darker and more richly embroidered “evening wear.” It’s a feast for the eyes that helps establish the Venetian setting, as does lighting that evokes Venice’s watery canals. The three canal-like arched doors readily expand the modest stage of the Goad to allow for the dozen or so characters to freely enter and exit.
Because of the complicated balance that must be struck when staging this play for a modern audience, one can forgive the sometimes deliberate pacing or the occasional sudden shift in the actors’ pitch from composed to shrill. After all, there are a lot of words! And a lot to ponder about our own beliefs as a result.
The Merchant of Venice is performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through June 18 at the Richard Goad Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave. Tickets are $12.50–$22.50. Call the box office at (562) 997-1494 or visit LBShakespeare.org for tickets and information.