The Merchant of Venice

A positive review from another perspective by Patrick Shannon, III

by Patrick Shannon, III,

Aimée Michel directed William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice as the first play of the twelfth season of The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane University It was unforgettably emotional, moving, and fully fleshed out with a vivid touches by all involved - obviously after much thoughtful understanding of Director Aimée Michel.

Contrary to my co-critic, Brian Sands, at Ambush Magazine, I have an entirely opposite perspective of her visionary direction of this strange and difficult play from the Bard's works. Aimée Michel's unusual vision for this production was brilliant. She inspired her actors to heights of performance that brought their characters to life with powerful complexities, and stunningly heart rending unforgettable perfection.

She chose to set The Merchant of Venice (classified as a comedy, but in which there is bitter drama) in two acts rather than five. It worked because in so doing she carved out and highlighted the essence of the complex characters - thereby allowing her actors incarnate their characters; and present every human dimension on the stage.

Aimée Michel also cleverly set the play in an imagined twenty-first century Italy, influenced by Federico Fellini's film La Dolce Vita. She allowed anachronisms to pop out, re the costumes and artifacts (cell phones) and the sets (plastic café chairs) used on stage.

The title character Antonio (Dion Van Niekerk) a merchant of Venice, agrees to help his poor friend Bassanio (Michael Santora) acquire funds to woo a the lovely, wealthy heiress Portia (Lara Grice). For the love of his friend, Antonio enters into a dangerous agreement for the money with the Jewish money lender Shylock (Gavin Mahlie). The life-long mistreated, spat upon, and cursed as a Jew, Shylock wishes no cash in repayment; he demands a pound of flesh should the debt default. This sets into motion the drama of the play when the debt can not be repaid, that culminates in a cruel court room scene. The comedy is supplied by characters such as the strutting and wonderfully - as played - outrageous Prince of Morocco (Tony Molina), one of Portia's suitors at her rural estate in Belmont; and Launcelot Gobbo (Gary Rucker) Shylock's assistant in Venice.

I do not believe the play is an anti-Semitic play. If William Shakespeare had wanted to express nothing but that, he would not have written the character of Shylock with the compassion he did. The hatred and humiliations that are visited on him only reflect truly what happens to any hated people then and now; and most probably forever. One message and moral of the play is that intolerance and ignorance, especially when used under the disguise of "societal and religious reasoning," results in hate and anger, as one belief is set against the other. It is perhaps as unfortunate for the Jews - or any reviled persons - to accept as a fact that they are "the chosen people" as it is for any other religious group to accept as fact that "their faith is the one and only pathway to God and infallible." All faiths are acceptable to God if the entity exists. Not just one! This, I believe, was the one of Bard of Avon's true meanings.

Setting the play in the twenty-first century allowed for many clever ideas. (It does make the male disguises of the females a bit problematic, as women have more freedom in the twenty-first century as opposed to the seventeenth century.) Yet again, this contradiction of reality is a very Felliniesque idea as in his film Giulietta of the Spirits. But more importantly, setting the play in a contemporary time brings home the fact that bigotry, cruelty, ignorance, and hatred are still a part of the world. Man's cruelty to man seems to be a natural part of his own basic evolutionary development. Why must we always have some scapegoat to suggest that we are superior to another human being? It is interesting to notice how William Shakespeare's plays have continued to influence playwrights. Summer Lyric Theater at Tulane University presented Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, directed splendidly by B. Michel Howard, an updated version of Romeo and Juliet, another study in hatred among a doomed love story.

Aimée Michel presented an understandable and thoughtful version of the play, and each of her performers created characters of many dimensions. From the major to the minor roles they were all diction perfect, and most movingly portrayed. I can say no more. There were tears in her eyes as there were in mine as the show ended. I wish to honor her actors and actresses by listing them all.

Dion Van Niekerk was Antonio the title character. Michael Santora was Bassanio his friend, and in love with Portia. Sean Patterson was Gratiano, Bassanio's loutish friend. Evan Cleaver was Salonio a friend of Bassanio and Antonio. Johnathan Padgett was Salerio also a friend of Bassanio and Antonio. Ty Hosler was Lorenzo who was in love with Shylocks' daughter Jessica. Gavin Mahlie was Shylock a Venetian Jew, (he was completely moving with his court room speech). Morla Gorrondona was Jessica (creating a well crafted character) Shylock's daughter. Gary Rucker was Launcelot Gobbo a servant who changed masters from Shylock to Bassanio. Lara Grice was Portia The Lady of Belmont. Tony Molina was the bombastic Prince of Morocco. Randy Maggiore was the Prince of Aragon, and also Tubal a friend of Shylock. Andrea Frankle was Nerissa, Portia's waiting-woman. Foster Johns was Balthasar a servant of Portia. Daniel LaForce was the elegant and convincing Duke of Venice, and Old Gobbo, the father of Launcelot Gobbo. Sean Mellot was the Jailer. Erik Clerks was an ever present musician. Elizabeth Bigger, Melanie Britt, Ben Carbo, and Whitney Haase were the people of Venice. How they all illumined the stage both from within and without!

(There was a very interesting moment in the play when during the famous "pick the right casket" scene, the right casket simply would not open. Michael Santora and Lara Grice (who was wonderful even with an injured foot) and all others concerned in this scene covered the problem with grace, humor and professionalism. They kept the moment going, and the audience laughing and applauding with appreciation of their wit and acting panache.)

Hugh Lester designed the simple, very clever set of arches; and lighting. The set seemed to be influenced by the Italian surrealist painter Giorgio De Chirico.

The original music was by Stephen Thomas, and although lovely to hear was little more than another delightful anachronism adding to the Felliniesque directorial concept of Aimée Michel.

The colorful costumes were by Joan Long who also touched upon anachronisms in her designs, such as Shylock the Jew who appeared pre-holocaust, modern middle European. And in her use of certain offbeat colorful touches via the use of certain fabrics, scarves, hats and café-society couture, high and low. Production Stage Manager was Brad Robbert, who kept the show running smoothly.

I can't wait to see Othello opening July 14, 2005. I only hope I can take some pictures of the set and actors, or get some from those responsible as soon as possible. I expect it will be another brilliant visionary production from the fertile imagination of Director Aimée Michel. I'm sure both she and I will experience a total cathartic experience from that production, teary eyes and all the rest, at the tragic ending.