April 28, 2005

All That Glitters is Not Gold

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In the Schwartz Center’s production of The Merchant of Venice, it all comes down to bad timing. If Shylock hadn’t lost his daughter just before he learned of Antonio’s misfortunes, he might never have sued for a pound of flesh. Once in court, if Shylock hadn’t hesitated, he might have taken his revenge on Antonio before Portia found a solution. And if Portia had not witnessed her husband pledging his love to another in that same court room, the sentence she pronounces against Shylock would not have been so harsh.

Although the two most striking aspects of David Feldshuh’s staging are his choices of setting (contemporary Venice) and casting (Shylock and Jessica are Ethiopian Jews), both the director and the actors say that the complex characters and themes are the most interesting aspects of Merchant. Feldshuh, who has put on at least one of Shakespeare’s plays every season since his arrival at Cornell in 1984, finds this year’s to be one of the most interesting: “What’s great about this play is that the traditional fault lines — let’s say the opposition between Christians and Jews — fracture. There are questions about gender, authority and allegiance that make everything more complicated. You can’t direct this play without making choices. Does Bassanio run Portia or does Portia run Bassanio? Does Shylock really want to make friends with Antonio? Is mercy really mercy? All these openings in the text make this one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays.”

Jeffrey dePicciotto ’05, who plays Bassanio, agrees. “People call it a problem play,” he said. “There’s the conflict between Antonio and Shylock, all the problems the lovers have and then this tragedy that seems to have a happy ending. What this production does really well is that it sees the unsympathetic side of every character. Bassanio has his bad side too. It’s a very monetary world, and Bassanio is kind of a player. He’s always broke, but he skates by because he’s slick, manipulative. But even though he’s driven by money there is a deep love he has for Antonio as a friend, and so he’s very loyal.”

It’s Bassanio’s need for cash to finance his wooing of Portia — the heir to the estate of Belmont — that drives Antonio to borrow 3,000 ducats from his “near enemy,” Shylock, who refuses interest on the sum and asks only for a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the sum is not repaid. And of course Antonio agrees, because what could Shylock possibly want with a pound of flesh? Besides, surely it’s impossible that all four of Antonio’s ships would be lost at sea before he has to repay the money.

Obviously, Antonio has never seen a play. The morass of animosity, revenge and grief that results when the bond comes due leaves every character deeply altered, troubled and in some cases shattered.

Feldshuh places all these romantic and legal maneuverings firmly in the modern day with the assistance of Troy Hourie’s versatile, minimalist set. Hourie brings out the wealth and coldness of Feldshuh’s modern Venice by using steel and chrome for almost all of the furniture on stage as well as incorporating seven video screens. Feldshuh also uses the set — which has a balcony that repeatedly doubles as a stage — to make a point about how bigotry works. Feldshuh chose to have one character deliver a diatribe against Shylock as stand-up comedy and the entertainment at Bassanio’s party consist of an Anti-Semitic cabaret act because “I wanted to show that it’s public. That it’s a joke shared by Venice.”

Of course, as RPTA and vocal coach Sarah K. Chalmers says, there may be more than one reason why Shylock is excluded. “Every production has to decide why he’s an outsider. Is it because he’s a Jew? Or does the financial angle have something to do with it? In our production, there’s also the fact that he’s Ethiopian.”

Patrick Rameau, the first-year RPTA who plays Shylock, sees his character as deeply conflicted and driven by his grief over his daughter Jessica, who leaves him to marry a Christian: “There’s a real fight within this character about what the right thing to do is. He’s very true to people who lose a loved one. He’s living in a society where he’s oppressed, and then the oppressors take his daughter and the last hope he’s hanging onto. He becomes careless, self-destructive.”

The RPTA who plays Shylock’s nemesis Antonio, Laurence Drozd, argues that his character has similar issues. “Antonio is a Christian, and he’s trying to overcome the confusion his feelings for Bassanio cause him; he feels guilty. He doesn’t like that Shylock lends money at interest; he doesn’t really like Jews. But at the end I think he realizes the folly of having one’s own belief lead to hatefulness.”

One of the traditional problems that a production of Merchant raises is how to stage the romantic comedy of Portia’s courtship alongside the tragic dilemmas of Antonio and Shylock. According to Emily Ranii ’07, Portia herself is changed by the trial she decides. “I think she goes in there and really thinks that she can fix everything by talking about mercy. But she can’t, and that throws her off. So she has to figure the solution out by herself. Then she sees the connection between Bassanio and Antonio, and that mirrors what happens when Shylock loses his daughter.”

It is Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Colista Turner ’05), now married to Lorenzo (Travis Atkinson ’05) and living at Belmont, who closes the play. “Jessica’s situation brings the real back into the play. She reminds you that everyone isn’t happy,” she said. “She’s in this place where people are nice but don’t really accept her. And she loves Lorenzo, but when she leaves her father and hears what’s happened to him, she loses a part of herself.”

Archived article by Erica Stein
Sun Senior Writer