Productions of "The Merchant of Venice" nowadays always come with caveats.
|Nerissa (left, performed by Katlin Schlegel) speaks with Portia (right, performed by Carlyn Campbell) during a rehearsal of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" at City Park. (Photos: Enoch Wu/Sentinel-Tribune)
The play is the repository of some of Shakespeare's most soaring rhetoric, and enduring turns of phrase. These buttress a strong theme that continues to resonate, dramatized by strong characters, including one of the Bard's best women, Portia.
Yet "The Merchant of Venice" bears the stain of a nasty strain of anti-Semitism.
Lionface Productions stages the show, directed by Michael Portteus, unapologetically this weekend, opening tonight at 7 p.m. and continuing with shows Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. on the outdoor stage of Needle Hall in Bowling Green City Park.
Lionface regular Joel Paine mitigates the racism with his strong performance as Shylock. He lends him a brooding humanity, a gravity, stripped of stereotype. Shylock is bitter, and Paine makes the viewer feel his hurt. He provides a service, rooted as he says in his tradition, much sought after by Christians, and yet is taunted and called a dog for it.
The most hectoring of these Christians is the merchant Antonio (Ryan Albrecht). But his insult goes beyond taunting, he actually helps Shylock's customers avoid paying interest.
So when Antonio in order to help his dear friend Bassanio (Griffin Coldiron) comes into Shylock's debt, the moneylender seeks his revenge. If the loan defaults he wants not interest but a pound of Antonio's flesh, and no amount of pleading for mercy will stay him from exacting his due.
The balance as Portia (Carlyn Campbell) says in her speech to the court, mercy is a higher virtue than justice, since mercy comes to us all without expectation, while justice has a way of biting back on those who demand it.
The stark, resonant theme is surrounded by plenty of romance and comedy.
|Launcelot Gobbo (right, performed by Megan Koesters) guides father Old Gobbo (left, performed by Jerry Kowalski) during a rehearsal of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice".
Bassanio is seeking the hand of rich heiress Portia, who has already dismissed suitors of all nationalities, invoking some ethnic stereotypes at the expense of the Germans, French, English and Scottish along the way.
She is a proud, intelligent woman who disdains, often to the frustration of her friend and lady-in-waiting Nerissa (Katlin Schlegel).
Campbell and Schlegel revel in their scheming.
The interplay between the lovers Lorenzo (Katie Grilliot) and Shylock's daughter Jessica (Allie Levine) is wonderfully affectionate and comic, as they fawn and paw each other. Lionface never stints at showing Shakespeare bawdy side.
The high comedy though is reserved for Meghan Koesters' Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock's scheming, conflicted servant. Launcelot's two-minded debate with himself over whether he should stay or leave Shylock's service is funny enough, but when his father Old Gobbo ( Brigid Randolph) arrives, both blind and feeble of mind and body, the confusion and comedy reaches a higher pitch.
The cast is full of actors appearing in different guises, often different gender, who serve to pull the performance together. Other members of the cast are Angelica Cooley, Lynette Cooley, Sarah Hammye and Amanda Larsen.
As usual for Lionface, the cast articulates Shakespeare's rhetoric with natural and clear enunciation so that it cuts through the background noise of a performance in the park, the song of the cicada and the honking of the passing flock of geese.
Campbell and Paine seem not at all fazed by the burden of history as they deliver some of the most famous monologues in Western drama. There's the danger of treating Portia's "the quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven" or Shylock's "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" speeches like drum solos. Instead they weave these into the texture of the narrative.
In the end Shylock's literal search for justice is turned against him, and Antonio is spared. Then like a man on a rack, not a uncommon situation for a Jew of the time, the wheels of justice are turned again and again and again against him, in a way that's hard to watch for its cruelty, breaking a man already warped and bent by prejudice.
The lesson is hard, but the message worth noting, justifying bringing "The Merchant of Venice" back to the stage.